In late 19th century, with Avadh’s decadent splendour fast decaying, a rich, handsome and somewhat anglicised flaneur named Mian Azad, sets out on a series of Quixotic adventures that take him from Lucknow to Constantinople, via Bombay and Siberia. His beloved, Husn Ara, has asked him to join the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 to fight with the Ottoman Turks and show that he’s worthy of her. With him is Khoji, his Sancho Panza and an opium addict who’s given to comic exaggeration.

The amusing, wild, colourful and often bizarre and improbable chronicles of Azad’s travels made for four volumes and around 3,000 pages of Fasana-e-Azad, which was published in 1880 by Lucknow’s Naval Kishore Press. The series first appeared in the Urdu newspaper Avadh Akhbar between 1878 and 1883, but so devoted were its readers that it was compiled into a novel, much like Charles Dickens’s works.

Its author was the prodigious Ratan Nath Dhar ‘Sarshar’, a Kashmiri Hindu journalist whose ancestors had made Lucknow their home. Sarshar, whose name means intoxicated, was the editor of Avadh Akhbar and is often described as Urdu’s first novelist.

The achievements of Sarshar – one of several Kashmiri Brahmins, along with Braj Narayan Chakbast and Daya Shankar ‘Nasim’ to make significant contributions to Urdu literature – are a reminder of a time when Urdu was not hung with a communal tag it is in Uttar Pradesh today.

Fasana-e-Azad is a document of the Ganga-Jamuni culture – I think that culture still persists, but is under threat,” said Jennifer Dubrow, assistant professor of Urdu for Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington, whose special area of interest lies in 19th century Urdu literature.

Azad’s stories are meant to be narrated, embellished with riveting little details about people and places, very much in the oral storytelling mode of dastans. More than Azad and Khoji’s crazy travels in the west, it is their rambles through Lucknow’s gallis and imambaras that bring alive the city in the decades after the British turfed out its last nawab, the colourful man of arts, Wajid Ali Shah.

Shah Najaf's Imambara in Lucknow in the 1880s. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Shah Najaf's Imambara in Lucknow in the 1880s. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

“The most loved episodes deal with Azad’s interactions with various social types, including debauched aristocrats, street peddlers and opium addicts,” said Dubrow. “Scholars have considered these scenes to be very realistic.”

Revisiting glorious past

It was therefore a matter of time before contemporary dastangos (storytellers) stumbled on the potential of Fasana-e-Azad. Askari Naqvi and Valentina Trivedi have staged three extracts from it, recreating for audiences some vivid images of Avadh: the foibles of its ageing nawabs, the arts and graces of the courtesans, the bon vivants, the markets and their wares, foods, festivals, music and above all, the easy mingling of cultures and communities. These stories are a historian and ethnographer’s delight.

“While books like Guzashta Lucknow [Old Lucknow, 1920] described the city in great literary and historical details, they didn’t have the beauty as Sarshar’s writing, they couldn’t quite create the mental pictures of the city Fasana does. It isn’t a historical [account] but it is all history,” said Naqvi, who has also given a modern twist to the art of Soz Khwani, the rendition of songs lamenting Imam Hussain’s martyrdom.

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Lucknow, with its irrepressible joie de vivre, turned even Moharram into a magnificent grief fest, says Naqvi. For all the mourning, the funereal black had to be stylish and Sarshar talks of the seductive disarray in which the hair of the women in mourning falls.

Vivid language

Even if you don’t know Urdu, the stories recreate vivid images like a good dastan, says Trivedi. You can almost smell spring in Sarshar’s description of Lucknow’s basant – the marigolds, roses, saffron-tinted barfi, nankhatai and kesari-dyed pajamas and dupattas.

There is delightful use of languages in Fasana-e-Azad. There is of course Urdu, but also lilting Avadhi and the street patois. “Language is one reason for the work’s enduring success,” said Dubrow. “Sarshar uses a variety of styles in the novel: sometimes the ornate prose of the Persian and Urdu dastan tradition, sometimes Avadhi, which is portrayed as rustic, and sometimes the vibrant colloquial speech of Lucknow.”

Sarshar is not as widely known today as other Urdu litterateurs. Scholars point out that the progressive writers’ movement that followed in early 20th century with its emphasis on social realism overshadowed “light” literature that spoke of romance and adventures. But, as Dubrow says, Sarshar was so influential in his time – he died young, at 55 – he inspired Premchand to write his own version of the novel, Azad Katha, in 1927.

Fasana-e-Azad makes fun of a wide variety of social types, characters, speaking styles, clothes, etc.,” said Dubrow. “I think its main importance is as a satirical work, that criticises both Lucknow’s old nawabi culture and the uncritical aping of the West.”

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The opium-addled Khoji, for instance, is forever falling into comic misadventures where he threatens his enemies with retaliation he is not capable of. His most famous line that describes his impotent fits of rage is “na hui qarauli” (if only I had my dagger). It is often quoted by Urdu connoisseurs to describe cravenly behaviour.

Here is Dubrow’s translation of a hilarious and famous episode from Fasana-e Azad about the disappearance of a nawab’s quail, named Saf Shikan, a bird who he believes has human and spiritual powers. One of the best known Azad stories, it was read by Pakistani actor Zia Moheyeddin at the Jashn-e-Rekhta Urdu festival and the video can be seen here.

Pioneering work

There is some debate in the literary world on whether Azad can be classified as a novel and if not, whether Sarshar deserves the title of the first Urdu novelist. The argument is that the collection is too voluminous and meandering to be called a novel. But no one denies the fact that it was a breakthrough work in how it used workaday Urdu at a time when formal prose was de rigeur. In this, Sarshar is believed to have been influenced by Dickens.

Fasana-e-Azad is available freely online in Urdu but for those unfamiliar with the script, there aren’t many options. The Devnagri version has very few copies in the market and translations in English are sporadic. But this year, a collection of Dubrow’s English translations of some Azad stories will become available in her forthcoming book, Cosmopolitan Dreams: The Making of Modern Urdu Literary Culture in Colonial South Asia. Published by the University of Hawai’i Press, it will be followed by an Indian edition.

The novel ends with Azad having returned victorious from the war, married to Husn Ara, the father of two sons, and appointed to the Legislative Council of India by the governor general, where he’ll work on behalf of the nation.

“The protagonist Azad’s shift from a picaresque anti-hero to a proto-nationalist hero reflected the changing nature of respectability, what in Urdu was called sharafat, in the late nineteenth-century South Asia,” said Dubrow in her article, Serial Fictions: Urdu Print Culture and the Novel in Colonial South Asia, published in The Indian Economic and Social History Review.

In the last pages Azad and Husn Ara die, having left two very qualified and accomplished sons.