Close up of Nightingale of Kashmir

Ashok Ogra
Since the dawn of storytelling, authors have employed real life characters in their fictional work. Using real people allows novelists to anchor a reader in a very specific moment in time.
Noted dramatist, Sahitya Akademi awardee Padma Shri Pran Kishore in his latest novel ‘MOON OF THE SAFFRON FIELDS: The legend of Habba Khatoon- has chosen the ‘Nightingale of Kashmir’ – to craft a literary portrait of the poet (fondly called Zoon). He reveals her real persona-introducing us to her growing up in the village Tsandahar, Pampore to ascending the throne of Sultan Yusuf Shah Chak. The book is spiced with the dichotomies of adolescent love and conflict, marriage and separation, remarriage and exile.
The author also throws light on the political situation that ultimately culminated in the annexation of Kashmir by Mughal India.
As the story takes place in the past, the author provides historical context, and balances those exotic details with familiar, relatable ones to keep the story grounded. He captures the time period as accurately as possible for authenticity, including social norms, manners, customs, and traditions.
At the very beginning, we are introduced to Zoon’s parents- father Abdi Rather and mother Rahti whose favourite Lal Ded’s vakh ‘Aami punasodras navi chas laman’ would mesmerize young Zoon., and she would join her mother in singing it.
During the formative years, Zoon keeps acquiring knowledge about life. She becomes a favourite of all her classmates, who are all overawed by her wisdom and beauty.
Zoon starts enjoying the company of several young male friends, among them Kamal- the rich Zaildaar’s son- for whom she displays an open liking. She pours out her emotions in this vakh: “Laej phulai und wanan tse kanan goi na myone, Laej phulai kola saran wothu neere khasavo, Laej phulai iman vanun, Tse kanan goi na myone.”
(Even the distant jungles have bloomed, even then has not my voice reached you? Even the banks of streams and those of lakes have burst into bloom inviting you, even then has not the call of my heart reached you? Come, it is getting late to take our sheep to graze)
Zoon starts showing psychological strain because of a conflict between her heart and her head, best captured in this poem:” Jaeyed hankal tsoora nazran heinz zaala no heki may zaanth valith. Kyazi chukh wakh panun ravaravaan bekala…”
(The charms of the magic of hidden glances can in no way bewitch me, then you fool, why are you wasting your time?).
As fate would have it the brief but intense affair between the two ends abruptly, leaving Zoon forlorn and sad.
Because of the news of a possible invasion by the Mughal forces, the parents decide that they need to get Zoon married. After initial hesitation, Zoon finally gives in to her parents’ persuasions and gets married into an affluent landlord family of Padmanpore. She starts dreaming of a bright future and her “Fairy Tale Prince’ coming on his white steed to ferry her off to an enchanted land, full of marital bliss, like any other girl of her age.”
On Manziraat, her friend sings the traditional song:” Saazai geariye atha tul warai, Zoon chum paeit mas sonatarai.’
(O ye the beautician, handle the soft tresses of Zoon’s hair with care which are very delicate strands of gold).
But the bridal night turns into a nightmare. Zoon soon realizes that her husband does not possess the ability to consummate the marriage. She develops doubts about his manliness- apart from failing to appreciate the longings of her heart.
Zoon stoically accepts the situation as providence has destined. Her wailing soul bursts into a song: “Tuluv naar chum lalavu nmoore, Kainsi maa raavin shoore paan. Maely maaj irachnas kanda kaestoore, Dodasaity aasim tan naavan, Sui paan logmo rah musaafurey, Kainsi maa raavin shorepaan’
(What blazing fires I nurse within! Brought up by parents on honey and candies Bathed was I daily with milk, And look what a life of a vagrant beggar mine has been reduced to)
In his brilliant introduction, Shafi Shauq captures the true intent of the author: “It is the author’s concern with the particular historical, social, and political conditions of the chosen ear that is the sixteenth century Kashmir. ….The choice of a semi- historical Kashmiri woman of the sixteenth century as the protagonist of the novel gives the author complete freedom to reconstruct a personage who is hardly known…. Through his imagination, he has laid a graph to build the persona of Habba Khatoon.”
Khwaja Masood was a Sufi saint at whose residence musicians from the village would assemble and take part in Sufiana Kalam. Zoon too participates in singing and impresses all those who have gathered there. It is Khwaja Masood who orders that from now onwards Zoon be called Habba (a derivative of ‘Habeeba’ the beloved child of God) and added Khatoon to make it sound musical.
Meanwhile, the Sultan Ali Shah Chak whose rule had ushered in lots of welfare measures for the common people, gets killed in a polo match, and his son Yusuf Shah- a scholar, lover of poetry, music and the arts- takes over the reign in 1580.
And then the unexpected happens: Sultan Yusuf, while chasing a deer, reaches a land covered with blackberry shrubs.
“A cool breeze brought soothing whiffs of the fragrance of fresh saffron along with the strains of a song from the fields below. The melody was familiar. He had heard it earlier too. He was tempted to walk further down to catch the lyrics.”
“Gaah chone pevaan gati, Aki lati yiham naa, Yaavana myaani kirmiz pati, Kami vaana ranganai aakh, Me no zone aether tsati, Aki lati yi hamnaa?
(Your radiance shreds the dark, Won’t you come to me, just this once. O youth, crimson manifest, Who dyed you in this gorgeous hue! Never dreamt that moths would feed on you! Won’t you come to me, just this once?)
Thereafter, Habba Khatoon becomes a regular at the durbar, where she is invited to sing by the Sultan and his ailing Queen Gul Mehar.
Pran Kishore is almost filmic in the way he describes the scenes: “Queen Gul Mehar was anxiously waiting for her husband after she was informed that the Sultan had met Habba Kahtoon in the alley and had stopped to talk to her. So when her husband entered the chamber, she welcomed him with a broad smile and said: “so you have ultimately personally complimented your protégé. She affectionately held his hand and said,” Don’t feel embarrassed, darling. Tell me frankly, do you like this girl? I shall feel so happy if you do.”
Creating a character out of words and making them as vivid and memorable might be the hardest of the tricks a novelist has to perform, but Pran Kishore does it with brilliance. “It was a memorable sight, when after nikaah-khwani, both of them walked to Gul Mehar and knelt before her.She then lifted the tiara from her head and was about to place it on Habba Khatoon but she quickly stood up and refusing to wear it, said, “No, your majesty! No! This crown and the authority it symbolizes, are both yours, and will always remain so. Gul Mehar hugged her and said,”From this auspicious moment you will be addressed Mallika Habba Khatoon.”
However, the happiness of the newly married couple proves to be a short one as the Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar, in an act of treachery, annexes Kashmir and imprisons Sultan Yusuf Shah and banishes him first to Bengal and later to Puri. We see all this through Habba’s eyes- through her memories. In Kashmir, Habba Khatoon and Gul Mehar are escorted to the hills to safety. Habba is sad and full of nostalgia. “Dil nith rotytham goshe, Vwolo myaani poshe madano. Vwolo vesy gatshvai aabas, Duniyah chhu nendari ta khaabas, Praran chhas bo jawabas, Vwolo myani poshe madano.”
(You stole my heart and then drifted away. Come back my love, lover of flowers! Let us go to fetch water my friend, the world is lost in deep slumber and dreams, While I (the fool) awake, waiting for a word from him, My love, please come back, please).
Sultan dies in captivity and is buried in Biswak in Bihar.
Pran Kishore is remarkable in his exploitation of historical facts and using his own descriptive imagination in a rare frame of expression. It reads like a visual easy.Published by Sarhad, Pune, this magnum opus of around 560 pages is simply illuminating and definitely worth the price. The author combines intimate knowledge with a master novelist’s flair to present us with the amazing portrait of Habba Khatoon whose feelings are ones that we all know – love, loss and longing. Mallika breathes her last in the valley humming: Vwolo myaani poshe madano!
(The author works for reputed Apeejay Education Society)