Begum Roquia: the first Indian woman sci-fi writer

Sultana’s Dream a science-fiction was first published in 1905 making it probably the first Indian sci-fi work. It is a short story written by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain. Begum Roquia was born in 1880 at Rangpur which is now in Bangladesh.

Begum Rokeya
[photo from Wikipedia]

Sultana’s Dream was first published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine. Fortunately, the text of the story has survived. It reads like a feminist vision of the future. But it is not just a feminist vision but also a wonderfully written sci-fi story. It is a vision where women rule the country and men are holed up in “zanana” which is now called “mardana.” Since women are ruling there is peace everywhere and through the use of science all work is done efficiently and smartly.

Some snippets from the story:

Why men should be locked-up:

And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?’

‘Of course not!’ said I laughing lightly.

‘As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?’

‘Since the “Mardana” system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.’

Harnessing solar power:

The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire.

‘How do you cook?’ I asked.

‘With solar heat,’ she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process.

Vehicle of the future:

Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.

My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out.

Read the full story story here. I thank Nasiruddin Haider Khan for telling me about Begum Roqiya.

Nine styles of writings

By Amir Khusro

From his book Rasail al-Ijaz

From the beginning of my youth, I had the desire that I should produce among my fellow writers an epistle, more embellished and rhetorical, and more attractive than the cheeks of the beloved. Following the tradition of the beginners, I was eager to benefit from the writings of both the earlier and contemporary writers and learn, like the students conclusions drawn by the masters till I was able to ascertain with keen insight what had been produced by way of writing, covering both the categories of the sophisticated and the trash. I discovered that most of the Persian writings popular amongst the men of learning comprising the fundamental books as well as the books meant for the masses, consist of nine styles of writings. Now each one of these writings I display in the interior part of the paper and also outline the tenth way of writing which is my own, the product of my genius as it hardly resembles the conclusions reached by others. Further, the subtleties of this (way of) writing betray the qualities of the writer very accurately and then it may be manifest to all that is an original creation, coming straight from the point of my pen, trickling down the compass of the paper and the purity of its essence bears witness to its authenticity.

Current among most of the people, comprise of nine modes. The first mode is that of the mystics, the second is the one adopted by the learned men, the third that of epistle writers, the fourth that of expert physicians, the fifth that of preachers, the sixth that of teachers of children, the seventh that of people in general, the eighth that of persons holding official, professional or carrying on some kind of trade and industry, and the ninth that of mere jesters.



Amir Khusrow surrounded by young men. Miniature from a manuscript of Majlis Al-Usshak by Husayn Bayqarah. [Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

Mystic path:

This style has two subdivisions: first, of those whose explanations of truth are based on glimpses of reality, and the other of men of affairs and spiritual ecstasy. The style of men or reality is in such a fashion, that the manner of treading the mystic path and its various stages are specified in a language that is peculiar to themselves. When the one who traverses of the path, on account of his materialistic inclination, gets stuck in the mire of the world, how may his spiritual guide extricate him from this adhesive soul and help him reach his real destination. Of books dealing this is the Persian book, Kashf al Mahjub and Saluk al-Muridayn and all others of the earlier and later investigators, and this is the practice which has reached us from them.

The other mode of writing is represented by discourse about the state of ecstasy, as outlined in the hair-splitting speculations of Khwajah Ahmad Ghazzali, and in the acute observations of Ain al-Qudat Hamaddani. Other discourses that are initiated in the circles of the Sufis, even the slightest point of which cannot penetrate the head of the turbaned scholastic theologian and that of an uncouth jurist and of a formal sufistic theoretician, for there is a difference between the formal initiation into these matters and intuitive comprehension of these by the soul. Hence if the weavers of mandates and conveyers of ideas, in exercise of their inner sharpness, smoothen the point of their pen a hundred time and wish through this device to render the tresses of the pen only, ultimately the hair will get entangled in the head of their pen.

Learned scholars:

Observe the references of knowledge and the possession of knowledge here; this mode is something like this that the pursuer of the path of knowledge confers luster on the fountain of his writing so that he infuses life into the dead hears (of his readers) as are the Persian writings of the most profound scholars, Maulana Bahr al-Mu’ani, Muhammad Ghazzali and the translation of Ihya-i-Ulum al-Din the erudite scholar, Majd al-Din Jajrami. Such is the fluency of his writing as if ideas have been very adequately formalized and its subtleties gives the impression as if it is the product of the pearl scattering words having been sifted a thousand times.

Epistle writers:

This has the reference of consummation of subtleties and the process of their being sifted; this method is like this, that the delicate composers of subtle writings use the scale of the pen in weighing these. They cause to ferment the sobriety (and lucidity) or the Arabic word with the mature and perfect subtleties of the Persian language in such a way that it gets kneaded with perfect grace and delicacy. Here the operation of immature weighing is of no avail, and the un-sifted process of raw and immature writers cannot be made into a perfect whole. This is so because there are such delicate and subtle ideas that the weightless time brings out much from out of the grain of the hearts of those who are hair-splitting researchers. It is not like the flour of barley and wheat which is kneaded by people with the blow of their fist. In fact, a lot of toil and hardship has to be undergone before only a bit of it is kneaded, and then a lot of intense fire is needed in the furnace of the heart so that ferment’s material is cooked and refined. These acts of cooking and kneading for preparing fermented material cannot be accomplished except by persons like the authors of Kalila and Dimma (Arabic translation of Panchtantra) and Baha-e-Baghdad, who were men of taste and wit.

Philosophers and wise men:

Reference regarding minting of coins and standardization; this system is as follows: from the divine treasury, the house of memory and the mathematical table, and act of standardization based on logical analysis, they produce the impression-less coins of ideas and then produce the coin of writing on the minting apparatus which is made so that words and phrases get written correctly and they acquire the status of purity and perfection.

Preachers:

Matters regarding the art of Naqshbandi practiced by the Naqash. This has two varieties: one is figurative and the other is simple. The first one requires that the writer embellishes accessories of his writing with all sorts of artifices and the simple one requires that the master preacher adorns the board of the pulpit with verses of the holy Quran, (extracts from) the Islamic Sciences, the commentaries of the Quran and the tradition of the holy Prophet (sallallaho alaihe wassallam) without any mean tricks of decoration which are alluring only for the children.

Simple school teachers:

Matters regarding masonry and the implements thereof. This way may be defined thus: An awkward mason, not knowing how to use his digger, rolls down on the highway of his writing, laying big stones or words, in and out of proper context, and the result is that perceptive men avoid that route. And the impercipient, on the contrary proceed and accept them (uncritically) and hence they tumble down. As the former ones may have already committed blunders they see nothing wrong in those uneven ways and they regard them as easy and usual. And if some sincere and pure-hearted person wishes to remove those big stones (from that path) to some extent and remove those fissures on the analogy of hidden secrets, that lover (of good actions) brushes aside the wall before him and the wise mason gathers up the needed bricks from there.

Commons people:

Reference regarding months, years, days and time; this mode may be characterized thus: The common people of the city, while engaged in traveling, send their condition and happenings day by day, month by month, first day by first day and last day by last day, clearly detailing circumstances, with dates, in simple and plain language, and express their demands from each place, city and town.

Men of action and of various occupation:

Reference regarding traders and men of vocations; the way signifies that each group of bird-catchers, brokers, goldsmiths, musicians, drum beaters, and other groups have their own terminology for conveying their ideas. If an innovator wishes to introduce some sort of novelty, it is certain that his elegant writing will be devoid of the flavor of the usual form of expression.

Jesters:

Reference regarding wit and humor in abundance; the style of this group is like this, that men of wit and jesters, capable of provoking laughter and witticism displaying something of their hidden self, for the sake of enlivening the atmosphere of the company around them, use words and phrases which stimulate mirth and laughter. Thus youthful persons are inclined towards it, appreciate it and are humored and their minds are refreshed with deliciousness and agreeableness of that talk and they feel elated. The ribaldry and jeering that is produced by them is befitting their sense of appreciation and is productive of magical effects. They have added one diacritical point to the equivalent for magic and thus converted it into the equivalent for the word laughter and buffoonery. Even on this art of wit and humor they have published books which are like collections of blooming roses which are a source of enjoyment and delight among the people. Some persons take away some of its fragrant flowers which serve as fragrant bunch of roses for the assembly. What a jugglery is this that sometimes they throw calumny, attributable to the deer, or to the musk-bearing bladder of the deer. And sometimes they chastise the surrounding area of darkness of the bladder and find fault with it (accuse the deer of possessing the bladder). They call the rose, with torn and disheveled petals, a jester (one who laughs too much) and make a chain (white in color ) out of the black-leaved wood.

Let it be known that the subtleties of the (above mentioned) nine modes of style whose dictates rules over everything, whether black or white and which have thoroughly been discussed in the preceding lines, I now offer the tenth way which exclusively pertains to me and which should be scrutinized into deep insight so that it becomes clear that the subtle kind of style of writing is unique and modern style and it transcends the limitations of the older tradition and that formerly no scholars had any knowledge of this science (style). It seems as if the write of Destiny had purposely invented this for my sake.

Since this style (of epistle-writing, devised by me) places the epistle writer in a helpless condition, and the epistles written in this style are like miracles emanating from that style, hence it may be conceded that the title of this book of epistles, Rasail al-Ijaz; has descended from the heavens.

[The Writings of Amir Khusrau-I published by The Islamic Thought and Science Institute in 2007]