Reproduced, unedited but with diacritics lost, from the essay prepared for the Permanent Black edition of Ward's translation.
Afterword [to The Bride's Mirror]:
The First Urdu Bestseller

by Frances W. Pritchett

A story of two sisters named Great (Akbari) and Small (Asghari)--right from the start we're in didactic territory. Don't we already sense that the younger sister will be the heroine? If there were a sister named Middle too, the fairy-tale likeness would be complete.

The Bride's Mirror (Mirat ul-Arus) may or may not have been the first Urdu novel, but it was certainly the first Urdu best-seller. Released in 1869, within twenty years it had appeared in editions totalling over 100,000 copies; it had also, its publisher claimed, been translated into Bengali, Braj, Kashmiri, Punjabi, and Gujarati./1/ It had been adopted for almost every Urdu syllabus, and in fact has not been out of print in Urdu from that day to this. In 1903 an English translation was published in London by G. E. Ward; it is this translation that is reproduced in the present volume. Ward was such a careful student of the work that he had already, four years earlier, laboriously produced and published an entire roman-script version of the text, with partial annotation and a complete cumulative glossary./2/

The Bride's Mirror was its author's first literary success. Nazir Ahmad (1831-1912) came from a family with a distinguished religious ancestry./3/ His father, a teacher in a small town near Bijnore, taught the boy Persian and Arabic, and in 1842 took him to study with Maulvi Abd ul-Khaliq at the Aurangabadi Mosque in Delhi. In 1846, the boy had the opportunity to enroll at Delhi College, and studied there till 1853; he chose its Urdu section, he later said, because his father had told him 'he would rather see me die than learn English'./4/ During this period he also discreetly arranged his own marriage, to Maulvi Abd ul-Khaliq's granddaughter. Though he passed it off as the usual parentally-arranged marriage, many years later he urged his son in a letter to plan his own marriage, as he himself had done.

In 1854 he joined the British colonial administration, and his career prospered: in 1856 he became a deputy inspector of schools in Kanpur, and at the end of 1857 he was appointed to a similar deputy inspectorship in Allahabad. On the advice of a friend, he took six months' leave and spent the time acquiring a working knowledge of English. In 1859-60 he began translating the Income Tax Law into English, and followed it with the Indian Penal Code, a project completed in 1861. In 1863 he was rewarded with the post of Deputy Collector in the Revenue Service (hence his conventional title of 'Deputy' Nazir Ahmad), and was posted in various cities. Around 1865 or 1866 he started to write school textbooks in Urdu.

Then in 1868, the government of the Northwest Frontier Provinces began to offer prizes for books judged suitable for educational use: the conditions were 'that the book shall subserve some useful purpose, either of instruction, entertainment, or mental discipline; that it shall be written in one or other of the current dialects, Oordoo or Hindee, and that there shall be excellence both in the style and treatment'. Only one further stipulation was made: 'Books suitable for the women of India will be especially acceptable, and well rewarded'./5/

These prizes continued to be offered for some years, and The Bride's Mirror was awarded one in 1870. The work was so esteemed that its author received not only the maximum prize of Rs. 1,000, but also a watch as a personal token from the lieutenant governor; in addition, the government purchased 2,000 copies of the book and recommended its inclusion in school syllabi./6/ Nazir Ahmad claimed that he had written the story for the pleasure of his own daughters, after which it became such a neighborhood favorite that 'as a jewel of great price' it formed a part of his oldest daughter's dowry/7/; only by chance, he maintained, had his British superior Matthew Kempson seen it and caused it to be entered for the prize. This account, however, like some other famous anecdotes, seems to be a product of his pleasure in 'telling tales' and 'adding drama to the events of his life'./8/

In 1872 the author produced what he called the 'second part' of his tale, Banat un-Nash (The Daughters of the Bier, a name for the constellation Ursa Major), which won a prize of Rs. 500. He continued to write and translate educational and practical works, and in 1874 he once again won the grand prize of Rs. 1,000 with Taubat un-Nasuh (The Repentance of Nasuh). This work so pleased Matthew Kempson, the Director of Public Instruction, that he personally translated it into English./9/

Through the good offices of the great social reformer Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98), in 1877 Nazir Ahmad was offered a well-paid position in the administration of the princely state of Hyderabad. He remained there until 1884, when court politics caused him to resign and return to Delhi, where he lived for the rest of his life. During his years in Hyderabad, though he wrote almost nothing, he is said to have learned Telugu and memorized all of the Quran. Back in Delhi, he composed four more tales: Fasanah-e Mubtala (1885), Ibn ul-Vaqt (1888), and the much less famous Ayyamah (1891) and Ruya-e Sadiqah (1892).

At this point he ceased to write fiction, and began to participate in Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan's various political activities; he developed into a popular, effective, humorous public speaker. Eventually he turned his attention toward religious reform, and composed a number of thoughtful, candid, liberal-minded essays. He died of a stroke in 1912. But his influence lived on, and not just through his writings: his family maintained a tradition of female literacy, and he influenced the literary career of one of his nephews by marriage, Rashid ul-Khairi (1868-1936), who not only became one of the most prolific and popular Urdu novelists of his time, but also in 1908 founded Ismat (Honor), the earliest Urdu literary magazine for women./10/

Nazir Ahmad described his first three tales as forming 'a syllabus for the instruction of women': The Bride's Mirror was for teaching household arts, The Daughters of the Bier for teaching useful facts, and The Repentance of Nasuh for teaching piety. There is certainly, as C. M. Naim notes, 'some internal evidence to suggest that the series was planned'--or at least, that a series was planned, though it may have evolved in the course of its writing. Nevertheless, the quality and reputation of the three tales differ markedly. The second tale is much the weakest--it consists largely of an account of the school run by Asghari--while the first and third are the author's most famous works, with most critics preferring the third. The Bride's Mirror, the one that started it all, became such a popular favorite that in the days of its greatest fame it was, like a fairy tale, 'simply known as the story of Akbari and Asghari'./11/

The chorus of praise that greeted The Bride's Mirror was almost universal--but not quite. The influential religious scholar Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi (1864-1943) took a dim view of the work. His own famous didactic work Bihishti Zevar (Heavenly Jewels) was commonly given to brides, since it contained encyclopedic advice for every part of their domestic and religious lives. And in his list of harmful books that should not be read, the Maulana included both The Bride's Mirror and The Daughters of the Bier, along with two later tales by Nazir Ahmad. Perhaps realizing how odd this would seem to his readers, he added a note of explanation: 'These four books are of the sort that include some points encouraging discernment and decorum but elsewhere have sections that weaken faith'./12/

His somewhat paradoxical stance is noted by Metcalf: The Bride's Mirror is not only 'the most popularly beloved of the books Thanawi condemns', but also 'a story that seems in many ways a fictional account of the girl the Bihishti Zewar was meant to produce'. Metcalf emphasizes Asghari's exemplary combination of moral qualities and practical abilities:

It is the story of two sisters, the elder a mean-tempered, uneducated failure and the younger, Asghari, a literate, competent, and pious source of blessing to everyone she encounters. Asghari brings order to household accounts and to people's lives--and is able to correspond with her wise father, who is posted away from home. Patient and sober, she controls her self and her environment./13/
Why then disapprove of her? C. M. Naim speculates on some possible reasons for the Maulana's dislike of the tales: Nazir Ahmad's 'equating of Islam with other religions', his 'praise of the Christian English, at the cost of Muslim Indians', his mockery of certain types of Muslim religious figures, and 'his portrayal of highly capable and dynamic women, who tower over the men around them'./14/

A mirror for brides: the Persian 'mirror for princes' genre provides a conceptual starting point. Such a book describes and illustrates good and bad possibilities, providing many moral maxims along the way, so that the prince can see himself as reflecting the virtues and not the vices possible to his office./15/ Nazir Ahmad's bride is to see herself mirrored in Asghari. Just to make sure she takes the point, the author introduces his tale with a long exhortation addressed to the girls who will be reading his book.

He points out to them that women are 'preserved from the toil of earning a livelihood, or making money', but that 'it is the women who do the entire work of housekeeping'. Thus 'the world is like a cart which cannot move without two wheels--man on one side, and woman on the other' [7]. Women have faculties like those of men, and can become famous like men. It may be true that 'too much learning is unnecessary for a woman', but still--'how many women are there who acquire even so much as is absolutely necessary?' [8] Girls must learn to write, because they will need to write letters and keep accounts; they should also learn needlework, cooking, and general housekeeping [9-13].

Looking at 'the common practice of the whole country', we see 'no value set upon women' (italics Ward's). Yet, 'oh women of India'--and the Urdu has only 'oh women'--you should realize that the blame lies with you: 'It is your fault that you are so fallen in the estimation of the world'. If you acquire more capacity, it will be recognized. Yet living in purdah, how can you acquire it? For this you desperately need literacy. 'For you there is little hope of escape from your seclusion'. For better or worse, the practice is solidly entrenched: 'Public opinion and the custom of the country have made a retired life behind the purdah obligatory and incumbent upon women, and in these days the observance of this institution is more rigid than ever' [15]. Literate, knowledgeable women can educate their children at home, care for them properly, and manage large households more successfully. Everything points to the need for girls to read, to learn! He concludes his long introduction enticingly: 'And now I am going to tell you an amusing story, which will show you what kind of troubles are brought about by a bad education'--literally, by behunari, 'lack of skill' [17]./16/

This sentence seems to promise us chiefly Akbari's story. In fact, Nazir Ahmad divides his tale into two sections. The initial part, Akbari's story, is marked only by the traditional romance-like opening title Aghaz-e qissah (The Beginning of the Story), and indeed the author claims in his introduction to have composed Akbari's story first. But Akbari's story constitutes less than a fifth of the whole narrative. The second section, over four-fifths of the whole, is called Asghari Khanam ka bayan (An Account of the Lady Asghari); this is the part that the author claims he later added at the insistence of his daughters [2]. In his translation G. E. Ward breaks up the text into thirty-one short chapters, of which the first six tell Akbari's story.

Akbari, newly married, behaves in every unsuitable way: consorting with girls of low family, quarreling with her husband and in-laws, storming off to her mother's house, refusing to do domestic chores. She sews so sloppily that her aunt not only pinches her, but even runs a needle into her hand by way of punishment. She goes out without her husband's permission, tells her mother false stories of ill-treatment, and spitefully demands an establishment of her own, independent of the joint family home in which she and her husband have been living.

When she does get her own separate household, she is quite unable to run it. She cannot cook, so she feeds herself and her undesirable girlfriends on expensive takeout food from the bazaar. Her girlfriends steal from her, a female con artist and her allies fleece her and run off with her jewels, her unaired clothes are gnawed by ants and rats, and so on.

Why is Akbari such a disaster? We aren't left in any doubt at all. Akbari is awful, her own mother acknowledges, because she was 'her grandmother's spoilt pet', and her childish disobedience and destructive fits of temper went unchecked [38]. The author endorses this verdict: 'Girls who are perpetually being coddled and indulged when they are little, and who are taught nothing that is useful or practical, invariably reap trouble and sorrow throughout their lives, just like Akbari' [53]. (The story is told by a reliable first-person narrator, but his voice is impossible to distinguish from that of the author.)

Nazir Ahmad helpfully makes the comparison between the sisters' lives as explicit as possible. Although Akbari was sixteen when she was married, he tells us, Asghari was married at the tender age of thirteen--to the less capable, less knowledgeable younger brother of Akbari's husband. Moreover, Asghari had a child in the second year of her married life (though we are later given to understand that this child died soon after birth); and her husband's career obliged her to spend much time away from home. In short, he points out, her situation was worse than Akbari's in every way except one: in childhood she had received 'good training' [58].

For although her mother is 'a very hot-tempered woman', Asghari herself is 'intelligent, sensible, and kindly dispositioned'. She is a paragon: everyone loves her, and her father has entrusted to her the whole management of the household finances [20-21]; she has been running the entire domestic establishment since she was eight years old [61]. Her father, Durandesh ('Far-seeing') Khan, sends to her as a wedding present a very long and particularly patriarchal letter of advice about how to behave in her marital home: 'the creation of woman was merely to insure the happiness of man, and it is woman's function to keep man happy' [62]. Asghari makes it her practice 'to read it and meditate upon its contents regularly every day' [66]. In fact, it appears that Asghari has been educated chiefly by her father [126].

Although she finds her life as a new daughter-in-law difficult, Asghari behaves commendably. She cultivates her young sister-in-law, Mahmudah, and gradually becomes a valued member of the household. But she still runs into trouble. 'Since Asghari was incapable of quarreling, her very accomplishments became the cause of ill will' [68]. She falls foul of Mama Azmat, a venerable female servant who has been presiding over the household for decades, controlling all purchases, all loans and debts, all transactions involving the women's jewels--and, in the process, cheating and stealing to her heart's content. 'In short, Mámá Azmat ruled the house, as if she had been a man' [68]. When Asghari catches her out, Mama Azmat conspires to get Asghari into trouble with her in-laws. To make herself indispensable, she exploits the illiteracy and credulousness of Asghari's mother-in-law to persuade her that a harmless sign on the wall is a notice of a lawsuit over the family's chronic indebtedness.

But Asghari has written to her brother, asking him to arrange for her father-in-law to return briefly to Delhi from his post in Lahore. In the meantime, she works quietly to reduce the family's expenses. When her father-in-law arrives, he and she together ensure that Mama Azmat's fraud is exposed and the debts are paid. Asghari's father-in-law addresses her with real respect: he calls her 'brother' [95] and 'son' [108] (the latter shortened by Ward to 'sonnie'), and entrusts her with the management of the household.

The whole second half of the story (Chapters XVII-XXXI) is an account of how cleverly Asghari manages to restore and increase the family's wealth, while also greatly improving their social connections. She organizes all domestic affairs 'as if the house were a machine, with all its works in good order' [112], and persuades her husband to stop gambling and start working seriously to learn Arabic and accounting.

Her reputation is such that Husnara, a spoiled young girl from a distantly related aristocratic family of the neighborhood, is sent to her for training. Before long Asghari is running a small girls' school in her home: she teaches reading, writing, and fancy needlework (which is sold to pay the expenses of the school). We learn a lot about her teaching methods (including a recipe for zardah), and about the evils of other schools (they are boring, cruel, and exploitative). Asghari's girls dress dolls (thus learning about fabrics, clothes, and festivals), and also have 'doll feasts' that they themselves cook and eat, and for which they keep careful accounts of the costs. In the girls' lessons, Queen Victoria and the Begams of Bhopal serve as inspirations; so do English women who send their children away for schooling, for their love is 'tempered with reason' and is not 'a mad fondness like that of mothers here' who spoil their children and let them run wild [143].

Through Asghari's shrewd advice, discreet politicking, and energetic prodding (she 'put the yoke on' him 'by force' [151]), her husband gets a well-paid appointment in service with the English, in Sialkot. At first all is well, but then he falls into bad company and bad habits, and Asghari decides to travel to Sialkot by train, uninvited, to join him. Before her departure, she brings Akbari and her husband (who, like his father, calls Asghari 'brother' [156]) back to the joint family home. She reforms her husband, then returns to Delhi a year and a half later and arranges for her father-in-law to retire and for his older son, Akbari's husband, to take his place.

Her final coup is to take advantage of the love and gratitude felt for her by her now well-trained pupil Husnara and other female allies in that family, in order to get her young sister-in-law Mahmudah married to Husnara's younger brother. She points out, 'Wealth, good qualities, good looks, these are the three main things', and of them all Mahmudah lacks only wealth [164]; but in accomplishments she is in fact superior to the proposed bridegroom [169]. After much diplomacy and not-so-subtle emotional blackmail, Asghari has her way. She proclaims the virtues of simple marriages; but then, through a number of clever contrivances, she produces far more of a dowry than anyone had expected, so that the marriage takes place in the handsomest style. Because Mahmudah remains devoted to her and constantly seeks her counsel, Asghari now has a chance to manage huge estates, which she does to perfection.

In a brief conclusion we learn that Asghari has left monuments in the world: 'The things which she achieved under these conditions--for all that she was a woman--will no doubt remain in the world as memorials of her to the last day; but unfortunately I have not the leisure to set them down in writing' [187]. We have already had a list, in fact, of a mansion, a mosque, a sarai, and various charitable trusts left by her in Delhi [58-59]. She has trials to bear as well: although she has a number of children, most die very young. The death of one much-loved daughter is especially painful to her; however, she endures the blow with dignity and proper religious fortitude. She is consoled by another extremely long and didactic letter from her father that takes up the whole last chapter of the tale. One of her sons lives to adulthood, and is then married to Mahmudah's only daughter.

Nazir Ahmad's introduction to The Bride's Mirror is so full of complex feelings for women that it almost shoots out sparks. The reader can easily tell that this writer has spent time with women and girls, and that he genuinely likes them and enjoys their company. He cares enough about them to respect them; he values their potential and wants them to achieve fine things.

Thus he is led into a torrent of reproach. Wanting women to be admirable and admired, he is distressed by the shortcomings he sees in them: ignorance, credulousness, passivity, laziness, emotionalism, superficiality. He illustrates and denounces these faults, trying to hector his young female readers into overcoming such embarrassing, humiliating, even shameful traits.

Yet he also knows that the deck is stacked against women. They cannot (and perhaps should not?) dream of escaping from purdah. Shut up in their houses, denied access to higher education, unable to learn from mingling with the larger world outside, how can they be expected, against all odds, to develop the valuable practical qualities and abilities so much more easily attained by the men of their families?

But at the same time, such qualities and abilities are all the more necessary for women, since they get so little respect at home. If they show extraordinary abilities, they might have a chance to receive a modicum of admiration and attention from the male members of their family. Certainly they have no other chance, and Nazir Ahmad tries to goad them into facing this fact. They must think only of life within their family, and within the family they must think of earning the respect of their male relatives, while being careful to maintain their (religiously prescribed) subordinate role in the domestic hierarchy.

Thus every young girl should strive to learn, to become educated, to acquire skills and abilities that will make her shine in the eyes of her family. She should remember that men and women complement each other, they are as mutually indispensable as the two wheels of a cart. Men and women should each strive to shine and excel in their own sphere: women in running the large, complex households of the time, men in earning and managing the money that sustains them. Women must maintain the family's proper order and decorum--which includes their own subordinate and purdah-bound status; men must demonstrate their ability to shelter, support, and protect the women of their family. The cooperative work of both sexes is necessary to maintain the family's status in the world outside.

Nazir Ahmad's tale of two sisters is meant to illustrate how this process can work. The elder sister, Akbari, is a simple textbook example of how to do everything wrong. But Asghari is a far more complicated case. Though she is clearly meant to be a perfect paradigm of feminine behavior, her situation is in fact a limit case, even a liminal case. The story of her life pushes Nazir Ahmad's view far enough to reveal (to the reader if not the author) the paradoxical vision on which it rests.

For Asghari calls into question the neat role division Nazir Ahmad has laid down between men and women; she is almost an honorary man. She is like Athena, born from the forehead of Zeus and thus always favoring the man. Raised by her father, she constantly consults him by letter; she accepts and even reveres his staggeringly male-supremacist dicta. After her marriage, it is not her husband but her father-in-law with whom she consults, and whose unbounded admiration and support she obtains. She is not only an honorary man, but an honorary patriarch: her ties are with older and more powerful men rather than with her own generation. Although she discreetly manages her father-in-law's and older brother-in-law's careers while remaining in the background, she quite openly advises, hectors, and even dominates her hapless husband. When he seems to be going astray, she travels alone, uninvited and unannounced, to a distant city, where she immediately takes charge of him, drives away his evil companions, and reshapes his life to her own virtuous specifications.

She also exercises power through her role as teacher of aristocratic young girls in the neighborhood, shamelessly twisting the arms of her two favored pupils in order to marry her young sister-in-law into their family. At the end of the novel we learn almost as an afterthought that all her own children died in early childhood. It is hard to imagine her as a mother. Her legacy is not maternal but material and abstract: she becomes famous for her buildings and charitable trusts.

How can such unabashed, carefully plotted, meticulously described manipulation of her whole marital family's fortunes be fitted into her official ethic of unquestioning subordination to her male elders? It cannot, of course--as the reader will easily notice, but as Nazir Ahmad apparently did not. Nor did Asghari's marital family notice: all her relatives admired and valued her for her energy, organization, diplomatic skills, and managerial prowess. What her story really demonstrates is that in practice, smart, shrewd people (including women) can manipulate less capable people (including men) to great advantage. What Asghari's story shows is that nothing succeeds like success.

In his 'Translator's Note', G. E. Ward praises The Bride's Mirror for filling a gap: 'since so little is known in England about the social and domestic life of our Indian fellow-subjects, an authentic picture of one phase of it by a distinguished Muhammadan gentleman may perhaps be not devoid of interest'. And indeed the story is thoroughly evocative of its place and time, and fascinatingly full of cultural information. The lives of the women in a middle-class joint family, their relationships with the men of the family, their management of a traditional household, their treatment of servants, their arrangements for marriage, and so on are narrated with a vividness and colloquial detail that carry immediate conviction.

David Lelyveld in fact uses the story as an exemplary illustration of what he calls the 'kacahri milieu', and points out the characters' betwixt-and-between financial (and social) position: the family lives comfortably on an income equal to 'about two percent' of that of the lowest-grade British civil servant--though such an income was, at the same time, 'twenty or even forty times the wage of a laborer'. In this and other respects, Nazir Ahmad's account 'recapitulates the early careers of Indians in government during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century'./17/

Akbari and Asghari have married, we learn, into a good old family that has come down in the world [118-19]. The two sisters' attitudes toward social class, like all their other attitudes, are exactly opposite. The very first quarrel we overhear between Akbari and her husband concerns her habit of associating with the daughters of 'low-bred and vulgar people'. When reproached for this behavior, Akbari is defiant.

The silly wife replied, 'Affection and friendship depend upon the union of hearts. There was a bangle-seller named Basu living next door to my mother's house, whose daughter Banno was my bosom friend. I used to play with her when I was little. Yes, Banno and I made a marriage between our two dolls. Banno, poor thing! was very badly off. I used to steal quantities of things from my mother and give them to her. I would never give up my meetings with Banno, however much my mother forbade them.'
To which her husband replies succinctly, 'A precious idiot you were, then!' At this point, 'the foolish woman' reacts with a show of hysteria [18-19]. Unfortunately, she really is a foolish, lazy, selfish woman, so that this (to us) attractive display of democratic feeling is developed in the narrative as part of her general gullibility and vulgarity.

By contrast, the newly married Asghari dexterously gets rid of the young girls of the neighborhood, 'especially those of the lower classes', by not offering them sweets when they visit [67]. And when she opens her school, she is ruthless in her social discrimination. 'Asghari picked out those who were born of good parents [sharif-zadiyañ], and found some pretext for putting off the others' [125]. But on the other hand, her school offers what amounts to scholarships. Money is earned by the sale of her pupils' embroidery: 'Out of this fund clothes were made and books were purchased for those girls who were poor' [126]. Not money but social class is the real issue. When Asghari plans Mahmudah's marriage, she makes her goal clear: 'It is my wish that she should marry into a family of very high rank' [145]. There is no sign in the narrative that such social snobbery is anything other than a source of credit to her and her family.

Yet Asghari's values are nothing if not flexible and hard-headedly realistic. She knows how to get the best out of different kinds of employers: local rulers do not pay salaries on time [146], but they do help out with marriage expenses [184]. On the whole, she prefers the English, who look like winners: 'Since the English rule was established', she tells her husband, 'all the native chiefs are in much the same state of decay' [146]. She urges her husband Muhammad Kamil to start with a humble apprenticeship at the courts, then accept a small post in the system, while looking out for a better one. She tells him it's God's will alone that can get him a position--but also insists that he make his best efforts. She tells him he must rely on himself rather than on others--but then she arranges for powerful family connections to be used on his behalf [146-53].

In short, Asghari covers all the bases, and procures for her docile, naive husband a fine career, and for her whole marital family a rapid rise in the social hierarchy. She is careful not to be gullible, and the result is that she makes no close friends outside her own extended family. She preserves all the outward forms of deference to men and to her elders and to public opinion, but in fact keeps her own counsel and arranges everything as she thinks best. She will never admit to the degree of power that she constantly exercises, for she agrees with Nazir Ahmad that patriarchal values must be maintained. Men should support the family ('If families are to be reared upon women's earnings, why should there be men?' [155]), and her school, however lucrative, is of no importance compared to her marriage.

All Asghari's central qualities of character emerge clearly in one crucial passage, in which she decides to go to Sialkot, unannounced, to rescue her husband from his evil ways--indebtedness, nautch girls, bad company, bribe-taking--before it is too late. Although she has already made up her mind to go, she discusses the decision with her cousin Tamasha Khanam [154-55]. Here is my own very literal translation of the heart of that scene.

Tamasha Khanam said, 'To go without being sent for--well, it's not proper.'

Asghari said, 'You're thinking of proper and improper, and I tell you that if I don't go, my home will be ruined for my whole life!'

Tamasha Khanam replied, 'Ai sister! Why do you lower yourself like this? What do you care about him? May God keep your school safe--you can provide bread for ten people.'

Asghari said, 'A fine idea! What do you understand about it? I've set up this school in order to amuse myself; I never sought to make money from it....Just think--as if women's earnings are any kind of earnings! If we would habitually run the house on women's earnings, then why would men exist? If my own house is well established, then I don't care even if ten such schools are ruined.'

Tamasha Khanam said, 'How can you go in the midst of the rains? Let the winter come, then in the clear weather you can see about it.'

Asghari said, 'Ai hai, delay is a disaster! What can now be done by persuasion, can't be done later even by big quarrels.'

Tamasha Khanam said, 'Ai hai! Doesn't it grieve your heart to leave home?'

Asghari said, 'Why wouldn't it grieve me--am I not human?/18/ But is it better to grieve for a little while, or suffer for a lifetime?'

Here is Asghari at her best: energetic, capable, paradoxical, and (most unusually) under intense emotional pressure.

This passage is also offered as a comparison piece, so that the reader can see what Ward has made of it. He himself is very modest and matter-of-fact about his efforts: he describes his translation as 'merely supplementary' to other teaching materials, so that it 'makes no claim to literary merit' (Translator's Note). Ward's style is somewhat more formal and abstract than the Urdu, less colorful, vigorous, and colloquial. But on the whole, he is reasonably faithful to the text, as befits a scholar and language teacher. Only once in a while can one seriously quarrel with him, as in his tendentious rendering of admi as 'woman' (see the footnote).

All this being said, is The Bride's Mirror to be considered a novel, or does it remain simply a lively, well-written didactic tale? The author himself does not use the word novel, but does make strong claims to originality: his goal, unusual for the time, is that 'the speech would be idiomatic and the thoughts pure, and no artificiality or embellishment would find entry'. In their prefaces, his British patrons support this claim. Matthew Kempson, the Director of Public Instruction, maintains that the work is unique of its kind: its Urdu is as good as that of Ghalib's letters and the famous romance Bostan-e Khiyal, and it is so free of 'romantic themes' and high-flown literary and rhetorical devices that everyone ought to copy it. The Lieutenant Governor agrees that 'no other book in Urdu is its equal'./19/

Some critics have considered it a novel, and even a very fine one. The enthusiastic Shaistah Akhtar Banu Suhrawardy, writing in 1945, declares The Bride's Mirror to be 'the first real novel in Urdu, and still the best'. Making her case at length, she emphasizes its 'superb and masterly characterisation', so that the characters appear real, living, and timelessly appealing. She finds that Nazir Ahmad's work marks a great advance beyond the traditional Urdu romances (dastan) with their worlds full of heroes meeting implausible, supernatural adventures./20/

Other critics consider it a novel, but a flawed one. The well-known historian of Urdu literature Muhammad Sadiq finds such flaws unsurprising, since the author is seeking 'to supply textbooks for juvenile readers'. Since Nazir Ahmad is a moralist, 'the course of his stories is entirely directed by didactic considerations': he 'invents a story in strict accordance with a thesis, and then fits it out with ready-made characters'. Even so, he has 'a keen sense of comedy' and a 'sufficiently wide' range of humor to keep his stereotyped characters alive and overcome the lack of dialogue and 'unusually slow tempo' of his 'thin and unequal' plots./21/

To Iftikhar Ahmad Siddiqi, an especially close student of Nazir Ahmad's work, The Bride's Mirror is a novel badly marred by the way 'the story's plot has been bifurcated' by didactic pressures: the stories of Akbari and Asghari have 'no relationship except that they are the stories of two sisters'. The novel offers few of the traditional narrative pleasures, and especially lacks 'conflict' and 'suspense'. In fact, 'the worst flaw of Asghari's character is that she is flawless, like dastan characters'. For 'the novelist has bestowed on Asghari such exemplary excellence that all the rest of the characters are humbled [dab kar rah gae] before her'./22/ (This observation agrees with Naim's conjecture about why Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi condemned the book.)

Ralph Russell, by contrast, defends Nazir Ahmad by denying that he is a novelist. It is unfair to judge him as a novelist, since 'he himself to the end of his days never made any claim to be one'. He wrote to instruct, and 'chose a fictional form because in that way he could make his instruction more palatable'. Although not a novelist, he 'was one of the founders of the modern Urdu novel, and this is his main importance in the history of Urdu literature'. We should remember that his many contributions transcended the merely literary: he was 'an outstandingly able translator, a sound practical educationist, the greatest orator the Aligarh movement produced, and a powerful and original religious thinker'./23/ Elsewhere, however, Russell speaks of the 'novels and other writings' of Nazir Ahmad, an author 'whose vivid, magnificent Urdu prose far surpasses that of any other nineteenth-century writer and affords me some of my favourite reading'./24/ Perhaps then Russell would consider him a kind of proto-novelist.

To me, The Bride's Mirror is ultimately a fascinating hybrid, a conceptual football ideally suited to be kicked around by theorists of the novel. It has some dastan-like qualities: inserted stories [35-36, 46-47]; an abrupt, episodic structure; an omnipotent and authoritarian narrator; stylized characters with distinctive, memorable traits that rarely change; a great fondness for long formal letters; and a tendency to spin off casual promises of more stories yet to come [125, 144, 192].

Yet clearly its original impulse was British-influenced, reformist, and didactic. The fact that Nazir Ahmad had a satiric eye and a gift for lively dialogue simply meant that the pill had more sugar on it than a lesser writer could have provided. As we have seen, the author proclaimed his hostility to artifice and embellishment--a slap at traditional Persianized Urdu poetry and prose--and his allegiance to colloquial language and 'pure thoughts'. (Whether he was writing for his daughters or for Matthew Kempson, the same stylistic choices proved equally pleasing to both.) The Bride's Mirror takes place in a historically accurate, minutely detailed social space, and all the events in it are brought about by normal, rationally explicable (and explicated) causes. The powers of its heroes and villains are on a human scale. In all these ways it is more like a 'novel' than a romance (dastan).

And yet, the term 'novel' itself is so (in)famously flexible. Strange, hybrid, soi-disant 'novels' are no modern monopoly. An English translation of the most famous Urdu romance was itself published in 1892 as An Oriental Novel: Dastan-e Amir Hamza. In his preface, the translator describes the work as 'a beautiful Oriental novel' which 'is very much to the taste of native readers'. However, he does not find it free of flaws. 'As is the case with native novelists', the story is 'ornamented by numerous exaggerations and colorings', and he has sought to minimize such 'superfluities'./25/ But of course, one reader's--or one culture's, or one generation's--grotesque hyperbole is another's marvelous inventiveness. The debate about 'novelness' is not one that can ever be finally resolved.

But in any case, what Nazir Ahmad promises us in his tale of Akbari and Asghari is not a novel but a latif qissah,/26/ a refined, graceful, subtle, agreeable story. For well over a century readers have been discovering with pleasure how amply he fulfills this promise.

Frances W. Pritchett

Columbia University


/1/ Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature, p. 265, note 28.

/2/ Ward, The Bride's Mirror, 1903 and 1899.

/3/ This account of Nazir Ahmad's life draws generally on Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature, pp. 112-20.

/4/ Gupta, Delhi Between Two Empires, p. 7.

/5/ Naim, 'Prize-Winning Adab', pp. 292-93.

/6/ Naim, 'Prize-Winning Adab', p. 300.

/7/ This and all other bracketed page numbers refer to Ward's translation, as contained in the present volume.

/8/ Siddiqi p. 47, quoted in Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature, p. 115.

/9/ Naim, 'Prize-Winning Adab', pp. 300-01. See also Kempson, The Repentance of Nussooh.

/10/ Minault, Secluded Scholars, p. 129.

/11/ Naim, 'Prize-Winning Adab', p. 300-01..

/12/ Metcalf, Perfecting Women, pp. 377-80.

/13/ Metcalf, Perfecting Women, p. 326.

/14/ Naim, 'Prize-Winning Adab', p. 308.

/15/ For a look at this genre see Levy, A Mirror for Princes.

/16/ Nazir Ahmad, Mirat, pp. 24-27.

/17/ Lelyveld, Aligarh's First Generation, pp. 56, 58.

/18/ Although the Urdu is kya maiñ admi nahiñ huñ?, the translator renders it, 'Am I not a woman?' [155]. In his glossary he defines admi as 'a descendant of Adam, a man, a woman, a person'; apparently he thinks Asghari is showing distinctively feminine sentiments here.

/19/ Nazir Ahmad, Mirat ul-Arus, pp. 3-5, 7.

/20/ Suhrawardy, The Development of the Urdu Novel, pp. 25-26, 40-41, 43.

/21/ Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature, pp. 410-14.

/22/ Siddiqi, Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, pp. 336-37, 342-43.

/23/ Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature, pp. 92, 112.

/24/ Russell, Hidden in the Lute, p. 3.

/25/ Hosain, An Oriental Novel, pp. 3-4. See also Pritchett, The Romance Tradition in Urdu.

/26/ Nazir Ahmad, Mirat ul-Arus, p. 27.


Gupta, Narayani. Delhi Between Two Empires 1803-1931: Society, Government and Urban Growth. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Hosain, Sheik Sajjad, trans. An Oriental Novel: Dastan-e Amir Hamza. Patna: Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, [1892] 1992.

Kalsi, A. S. 'The Influence of Nazir Ahmad's Mirat al-Arus (1869) on the Development of Hindi Fiction'. Annual of Urdu Studies 7 (1990):31-44.

Kempson, Matthew, trans. The Repentance of Nussooh. London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1884.

Lelyveld, David. Aligarh's First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Levy, Reuben, trans. A Mirror for Princes: The Qabus Nama. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1951.

Metcalf, Barbara. Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Minault, Gail. Secluded Scholars: Women's Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Naim, C. M. 'Prize-Winning Adab: A Study of Five Urdu Books Written in Response to the Allahabad Government Gazette Notification'. In: Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam. Barbara Daly Metcalf, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. pp. 290-314.

Nazir Ahmad. Mirat ul-Arus. Lucknow: Tej Kumar Book Depot, [1869] 1978. [Urdu.]

Pritchett, Frances W. The Romance Tradition in Urdu: Adventures from the Dastan-e Amir Hamzah. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Russell, Ralph. The Pursuit of Urdu Literature: A Select History. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1992.

-------. Hidden in the Lute: An Anthology of Two Centuries of Urdu Literature. New Delhi: Viking, 1995.

Sadiq, Muhammad. A History of Urdu Literature. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Siddiqi, Iftikhar Ahmad. Maulvi Nazir Ahmad Dihlavi: ahval o asar. Lahore: Majlis Taraqqi-e Adab, 1971. [Urdu.]

Suhrawardy, Shaista Akhtar Banu. A Critical Survey of the Development of the Urdu Novel and Short Story. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1945.

Ward, G. E., trans. The Bride's Mirror: A Tale of Domestic Life in Dehli Forty Years Ago. London: Henry Frowde, 1903.

-------. The Bride's Mirror, or Mir-atu l-arus of Maulavi Nazir -Ahmad. Edited (by Permission of the Author) in the Roman Character, With a Vocabulary and Notes. London: Henry Frowde, 1899.

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