The Battle of Books: Bagh-o-Bahar and Fasana-i-Ajaib

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Rauf Parekh

The Battle of Books, Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical work, narrates the story of a battle fought by books in a library. The books become alive and fight for superiority. Since the fight was an embodiment of the battle of ideas, the phrase ‘the battle of books’ came, with the passage of time, to symbolise the battle between the old and the new.

When we look for parallels in Urdu literature, we realise that the battle between two books—Bagh-o-Bahar and Fasana-i-Ajaib—and their authors was, in fact, the battle between modern prose and the classical one.

Bagh-o-Bahar, originally written as a textbook for officers of the East India Company, was penned in 1801 and published by Fort William College, Culcutta (now Kolkata), in 1804. Today, it is ranked among Urdu’s evergreen books. 210 years have elapsed since it was first published but it is still popular and loved not only by common readers, but is also taught to Urdu literature students as a sample of ‘modern’ Urdu prose. Apart from its numerous editions and different annotated versions, Bagh-o-Bahar has been translated into many languages, including English, Hindi, Gujarati, French and Punjabi. Its parts have been translated into Japanese, also.

Despite being a daastaan, a tale full of supernatural elements such as djinns, Bagh-o-Bahar has survived the changing times and tastes and has truly become a garden that has never wilted even after two centuries. The true magic behind this evergreen tale is its language. John Gilchrist had asked Mir Amman, the author of the book, to write it in the language that was spoken in the street and yet was idiomatic. Till then, the writers of Urdu favoured an old-fashioned prose laden with similes, metaphors and often tortuously flowery. Although Bagh-o-Bahar is not devoid of old-style prose, the language that Mir Amman wrote was largely simple yet refreshingly elegant. Contrary to the standard of the day, it was idiomatic and sounded extempore.

Mir Amman kind of rebelled against the traditional Urdu prose and it heralded the dawn of a new era. Another aspect that Mir Amman emphasised in his introduction to the book was that only those who had lived in Delhi, the seat of government, language and culture, could write Urdu befittingly. It naturally upset the lovers of old school. Among them was Mirza Rajab Ali Baig Suroor. Bagh-o-Bahar infuriated Suroor so much that he decided to write a rejoinder, in the shape of a book. Thus was created Fasana-i-Ajaib. Written in 1824, Fasana-i-Ajaib represents the prose of the old school: full of metaphors, wordplay and painfully ornamental. Back then, it was also considered normal and was rather appreciated to write rhyming sentences in prose, something that Suroor has done to his heart’s content. Suroor scoffed at the simple prose written by Mir Amman and intentionally wrote a language that was everything but simple. It has rendered parts of Fasana-i-Ajaib virtually unreadable for the college student today.

Suroor represented the old school and Mir Amman, guided by John Gilchrist, his western colonial mentor, took the first step towards the modern Urdu prose. But what enraged Suroor even more was Mir Amman’s claim over the Urdu language by the virtue of “having lived in Delhi for long enough”. Ignoring altogether the changing times and following blindfolded the old standards Suroor thought it was Lucknow and not Delhi that could lay claim over the language and literature. In his preface, Suroor not only rebukes Mir Amman for his simple and ‘unidiomatic’ language, but also seems exasperated with Mir Amman’s preference to Delhi over Lucknow. Then Suroor in his introduction to the book eulogises his beloved city of Lucknow in his usual style and diction. Although a delectable piece of literature recording the cultural atmosphere of the then Lucknow, this exaggerated account at times sounds funny and ultimately renders the piece counterproductive.

Both Bagh-o-Bahar and Fasana-i-Ajaib are today considered among the masterpieces, but both represent two schools that are worlds apart—the old and the new, the ancient and the modern. Another aspect of this battle is the tussle between Lucknow and Delhi. The political tussle between the king of Delhi and the king of Oudh had spilled over in the fields of culture, language and literature, as well.

Interestingly, the battle of books did not end there. Both sides found supporters and more books were written. Fakhruddin Hussain Sukhan wrote a book in 1860, titled Sarosh-i-Sukhan, in reply to Fasana-i-Ajaib. He criticised Suroor for his views and prose. Later, the skirmish led to arguments and counterblasts in the pages of Oudh akhbar, a newspaper published from Lucknow. Jafer Ali Shevan, a disciple of Suroor, published Tilism-i-Hairat from Lucknow in 1872 and defended his mentor.

In the Indo-Pak subcontinent, the battle of books or the battle of ideas kept on raging in different forms and different times. The two schools of thought did their best to outwit each other. One such battle was fought between Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his opponents. But it’s a different story and quite a long one, too.

Rauf Parekh, “Literary Notes: The battle of books: Bagh-o-bahar and Fasana-i-ajaib,” in Dawn, September 8, 2014. Accessed on March 1, 2015, at:

The item above written by Rauf Parekh and published in Dawn on September 8, 2014, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on March 1, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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