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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Tale of Four Dervishes

Mir Amman

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To purchase A Tale of Four Dervishes

Title: A Tale of Four Dervishes
Author: Mir Amman
Genre: Novel
Written: 1803 (Eng. 1994)
Length: 164 pages
Original in: Urdu
Availability: A Tale of Four Dervishes - US
A Tale of Four Dervishes - UK
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A Tale of Four Dervishes - India
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Mohammed Zakir
  • Previously translated as The Tale of the Four Durwesh by Lewis Ferdinand Smith (1813), Bagh-o-bahar by Duncan Forbes (1846), and The Bagh o Bahar by Edward Backhouse Eastwick (1852)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable, though the translation perhaps a bit too easygoing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
India Today . 31/1/1995 Mushirul Hasan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though the symbols bear an Islamic colouring, the reader is not pushed into an unfamiliar, unfriendly or hostile world. The structure of the tales, as indeed the narrative, is woven around themes of humanity, tolerance, kindness, benevolence and charity. Their appeal is truly universal." - Mushirul Hasan, India Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       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 writes in his Introduction. It is actually a translation of sorts, based on a much earlier work (and later variations thereof), the 14th century Qissa-e-Chahar Darvesh by Amir Khusrau. Written at a time when there was little Urdu prose available, Mir Amman was urged to fashion this translation while at the Fort William College, to also help introduce the British to local customs and history through local literature; Mir Amman's version was then also soon translated into English.
       The Urdu title of the original translates as 'Garden and Spring', and there's certainly more to it than just a tale of four dervishes. Azad Bakht's story frames all the others: he's a great king in Turkey and everything is picture-perfect -- except that he doesn't have a son. When he hits forty this devastating fact that he has no proper heir leads to one hell of a mid-life crisis. He pretty much gives up on everything -- but can then be convinced that this is no way for a king to act. But he remains unhappy about his situation, and one night he puts on a disguise and heads out of the palace ... and comes across the four dervishes.
       The four dervishes are a pretty miserable lot at this point too:

all wearing the dress of the dead and sitting quietly against each other with their heads on their knees. The king could not see their faces but by their postures he felt they were afflicted with grief. They seemed like dead figures on the wall.
       Each dervish, of course, has a story to tell, about why they are so sad and what they have lost. And each, it turns out, encountered a "veiled rider in green clothes" when they were at their lowest point, who promised them some variation on the basic notion that:
Three dervishes who are distressed and have seen the vicissitudes of life like you have will meet you soon in Turkey. The king of that country is Azad Bakht. He too is distressed. When he meets all four of you, the wishes and desires of each one of you will be fulfilled.
       So the happy ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion -- but first each dervish (and Azad Bakht) relates their sorry tale and the highs and lows they've experienced. They're all men from great and powerful families -- a merchant, Persian princes, the son of the Emperor of China -- 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; among these is the best of the lot, in Azad Bakht's account, as Khwaja the Dog-Worshipper suffers repeatedly at the hands of his good-for-nothing brothers: hilariously he always gets back on his feet again and does exceptionally well for himself, only to encounter his brothers and lose everything yet again.
       A Tale of Four Dervishes benefits greatly from being of the right length and proportions: enjoyable though Decameron-like collections may be, it's hard for authors to maintain enough control to keep the stories from pulling the reader in too many directions or create any sort of satisfying (and cohesive) whole. Mir Amman offers up some very good stories, but doesn't linger -- and doesn't get (too) carried away. And while the framing device -- Azad Bakht's misery over not having sired a son -- is pretty silly (and its resolution extraordinarily silly), it serves its function well. (Mir Amman does, however, indulge in a bit of a flight of fancy in extending the resolution in a ... creative way -- as if he wanted to get one more story in; it's odd, but there's something to be said for that final flourish.)
       Mohammed Zakir's translation of a text that is meant to be very accessible is certainly fluid; if anything it reads almost too smoothly: expressions like the admonition to "keep it between you and me and the lamppost" seem distinctly out of place, even as they go down very easily.
       With its many story-layers, A Tale of Four Dervishes is a rich and entertaining read. From the Lear-like tale of the princess who proves fate (and god) provide and decide all, to some cross-dressing disguises and star-crossed love affairs, and a dog with a ruby-collar (a thought so offensive that Azad Bakht immediately orders the vizier who suggests such a thing exists executed -- though it doesn't come to that), there's impressive variety here too -- without anything ever going on too long.
       Very enjoyable, certainly worthwhile.

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A Tale of Four Dervishes: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mir Amman was a munshi at the British East India Company's Fort William College in Calcutta.

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