Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Tale of Four Dervishes (Bagh-o-Bahar) by Mir Amman, reviewed by Satyajit Gupta

A Tale of Four Dervishes is the English translation of Mir Amman's Bagh-o-Bahar ("Garden and Spring"), which in turn is an Urdu translation of sorts, based on a much earlier work (and later variations thereof), the 14th century Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh by Amir Khusrau. Mir Amman, a munshi at Fort William College in the early 19th century, finished this Urdu work in 1803 AD. At a time when Urdu was rarely used for prose literature, Mir Amman's work was unique. A Tale of Four Dervishes is among the best known and highly regarded works of Urdu fiction -- it remains "a monumental classic of Urdu literature", as Mohammed Zakir (the translator into English) writes in his Introduction.

Entertaining, fantastic and an out-and-out spellbinder (for children and the young at heart!), A Tale of Four Dervishes is a roller-coaster ride. Turkish emperor Azad Bakht's story is the background to all: his life and rule is perfect, except that he doesn't have a male heir. As he seems to go in a case of severe mid-life crisis, he gives up on everything. While he gradually comes back to his senses, he remains dissatisfied and one night puts on a disguise and heads out of the palace - and sees the four dervishes. All the four dervishes have quite a tale to recount. They're all powerful and rich - merchants and princes, but they've had terrible reversals in their lives. And the story-telling doesn't end there, as some of the accounts allow for stories within stories, describing the lives of yet other troubled souls.

While the stories are based in various exotic cities across the world, such as Baghdad, Damascus, Basra, Constantinople and so on, the characters, the weather, the food, the culture and the traditions are all quintessentially Indian. The work benefits from the fact that its length is ideal - neither too short nor too lengthy. A Tale of Four Dervishes is an entertainer, which reminds one of one's childhood when all the stories began with "Once upon a time, in distant lands..." and ended with "... and they lived happily ever after"!

Find out more about Mir Amman's A Tale of Four Dervishes here.

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