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Doctors and Urdu Literature -Part II: Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s Novel 'Taubatun Nasooh' (The Penitence of Nasooh)

By Dr Naazir Mahmood

April 15, 2020

In the first part of this article, we discussed the contribution of some medical doctors to Urdu literature and briefly talked about doctors Asif Farrukhi, Hasan Manzar, and Shershah Syed. We began discussing Dr Asif Farrukhi’s introduction to Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s novel 'TaubatunNasooh' (The Penitence of Nasooh).

In this final part today, we look at the novel itself. In Urdu literature, one of the first mentions of a pestilence we find in Nazir Ahmed Dehlavi’s novel 'TaubatunNasooh'. Despite its pedantic and preaching style, the novel remains a masterpiece of early Urdu fiction. Nazir Ahmed was born in 1830 and was an eyewitness to the tumultuous events of the 1850s and then multiple epidemics that broke out in Delhi and claimed thousands of lives. The novel was published in 1874 and Kempson did its first English translation in 1884.

A new translation by Wajid Naeemuddin was published by the OUP in 2008 with an introduction by Dr Asif Farrukhi, a great-grandson of Nazir Ahmad. In the preface itself, Nazir Ahmad clarifies that the main purpose of this novel is character-building of children. Nasooh is the head of a family that is not particularly religious and does not offer prayers regularly. In the epidemic of cholera Nasooh falls ill and has a dream in which he witnesses the Day of Judgment. When he recovers, he repents his sins and tries to correct his family ways.

Nazir Ahmad’s description of the epidemic is as follows: “…thirty or forty people died each day. Only the death business thrived; everything else was quiet and desolate. Whichever way one looked, one sensed unease and anxiety. The bazaars, which in the past one could not walk through without rubbing shoulders with others, were now so deserted that one feared going there even in broad daylight. The clink of utensils was heard no more, the cries of hawkers ceased altogether, all socializing came to a halt, visiting one another, enquiring after the sick, hospitality and partying, all became a thing of the past.

“Every individual was preoccupied with his own predicament, was miserable, despairing of life, indeed alive only in name, and really worse than dead. Having lost heart, and being drained of energy, one either took to bed at home, resentful of everyone and everything, or visited those who were afflicted, or cried a bit, recalling the death of a dear one. Death in those days could truly be called capricious, striking many, suddenly and unexpectedly as they went quite unsuspectingly about their daily business. There would be a sudden sick feeling followed by vomiting and then there would be a sudden loss of all the five senses.”

Sounds familiar? After this description, we read about Nasooh falling victim to cholera and in a near-death experience he has a nightmare in which on the Day of Judgment the Almighty is cross-examining all sinners. Nasooh has little to show on his account of prayers and submission to God. When he wakes up and recovers from the illness, Nasooh has repented and mutated into a God-fearing and upright person who tries to change his entire family. Thus begins a struggle with his family members: the younger ones are easy to mold but the older ones resist.

Especially his eldest son, Kaleem, is adamant to oppose his father’s new-found religiosity and insists on a more liberal and scientific outlook. The struggle continues and leads to many unpleasant exchanges between the father and the son. Ultimately, the son cuts off contact with the family, is entrapped by unscrupulous friends who cheat him and is all set to meet is comeuppance. Nazir Ahmed portrays a reckless picture of this world if children don’t obey their parents especially if they are the pious ones, or at least pretend to be so.

As Prof Iftikhar Siddiqui points out in his Urdu introduction to this novel published in 1964, perhaps Nazir Ahmed was inspired by an early 18th century pedantic novel by Daniel Defoe. 'The Family Instructor' (1715) was published in England around 150 years before Nazir Ahmad wrote his novel on a similar theme. It is not clear if Nazir Ahmad actually read that English novel and borrowed the idea from there, but even now if you read Dafoe’s 'Family Instructor' – which is available for free online – you find striking similarities in style and theme.

Even the introduction to Volume One of Dafoe’s 'Family Instructor' makes it clear that the purpose of these volumes will be didactic, offering sage advice to readers as to how to conduct their religious duties within the domestic sphere. England of the 18th century produced many ‘conduct works’ that reflected the dilemma of a clergy-led society that was threatened by the enlightenment thinkers who were challenging the established thought in Europe. The same dilemma the thinkers and writers of India faced in the 19th century, from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

The same puzzle was faced by Deputy Nazir Ahmed and after him by the likes of Azad, Hali, Iqbal and Shibli. These ‘conduct works’ found expression not only in Urdu prose but in poetry too such as in Hali’s Musaddas, Shibli’s hagiographies, and Iqbal’s attempts to reconstruct and represent Islamic thought in a new mould. Just as these people did much later in India, Daniel Dafoe had also broached the question of children’s education in some of his novels, including 'Robinson Crusoe' (1719) and 'Captain Singleton' (1720). But perhaps the most didactic was 'The Family Instructor' in two volumes.

Interestingly, the context also had some similarities. In June 1714, the British parliament had voted the Schism Act, which forbade Protestant Dissenters from being school-teachers and giving religious instruction in keeping with their beliefs in schools. Dafoe did not like these measures and tried to combat its effects by his writings. In India, with the introduction of English education the stress on religious education declined and that alarmed people such as Nazir Ahmed who espoused a revival of religious thought through their writings. The pestilence and epidemic offered them an opportunity to induce religiosity among the readers.

Just like Defoe, Nazir Ahmed intended to help nonconformist parents to hand down to their children the main principles of their faith, which would no longer be taught in mainstream schools. Dafoe and Nazir both denied any sectarian intent, and claimed to appeal to people from all religions. Nazir Ahmad writes: “…trying to detach goodness from religion is like separating the soul from the body, fragrance from the flower, light from the sun, the jewel from its worth, or the nail from the flesh…the preservation of religion in our lives is imperative.”

One of the most poignant sections in the novel by Nazir Ahmad is the one in which Nasooh decides to burn the books that his son Kaleem has collected and read. Dr Farrukhi writes in his Nasooh to Nazir Ahmad: From Cholera to Book Burning: “His act is ideologically motivated. It was a similar ideological motivation which led to the public burning of books in Nazi Germany and the similarity exposes the latent fascism in Nasooh’s ideas. It is especially frightening that this tendency to condemn books and then declare them ‘worthy of being torn and burnt’ is present in our society too.”

Dafoe wrote in the early 18th century and Nazir Ahmad in the late 19th, but as aptly highlighted by Dr Farrukhi even in the 20th and 21st centuries, the battle of ideas rages on. Looking at it with reference to the coronavirus pandemic raging right now, we are sure that the England of Dafoe is no more there, but we in a way are still living in the time of Nazir Ahmed. The near-complete disregard for scientific advice and insistence on carrying on with religious congregations is a sign of a society that is stuck with medieval practices and patterns of thought.


First Part of the Article: Doctors and Urdu Literature - Part I: Dr Asif Farrukhi, Dr Hasan Manzar, And Dr Shershah Syed Stand Out in Urdu Literature

Dr Naazir Mahmood holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Original Headline: Doctors and Urdu literature -Part II

Source:  The International News, Pakistan


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