Excerpt: The Bride’s Mirror – A Tale of Life in Delhi a Hundred Years Ago by Nazir Ahmad (Trans. G. E. Ward)

About the book:

The Bride’s Mirror (Mirat ul-‘Arus) was the first bestseller in Urdu. First published in 1869, within twenty years it had gone into several editions and sold over 100,000 copies. An English translation was published in England in 1903 by G. E. Ward, and the book has been almost continuously in print ever since. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Asghari and Akbari, who are married to two brothers in Delhi. Akbari, the spoilt, mean-tempered and impetuous sister, fritters away all the advantages she is offered and makes a mess of her life. Asghari, who has to contend with all sorts of disappointments and setbacks, prevails in the end and makes a success of everything she turns her hand to.

All through its existence, The Bride’s Mirror had been hailed as one of the most important works of Urdu literature ever published. The portrait it provides of the lives of those who lived in Delhi over a hundred years ago is an indelible one.

Bride's mirror-1

When the news of Batúl’s death reached him, Dúrandesh Khán sáhib was very greatly distressed, and it was with a troubled heart that he wrote to his daughter the following letter:

‘To my dear child, Asghari Khánam, after my blessing,
‘Be it known;

I have only just learnt, by letter from Delhi, that Batúl has been taken from you. It would be impossible for me to pretend that this has not caused me pain, and yet my reason has not gone so far astray that I should give way to useless repining, like those who are without knowledge. My great trouble is for you. If this blow should seem to have fallen upon you with terrible severity, it is no wonder. But in every state of life it behoves God’s servants to take counsel of their reason. God, in His mercy, has given us our reason for this very purpose—that we should get help from it, whether in sorrow or in joy. The facts of the world are such that we cannot avoid the necessity of pondering over them, and this kind of meditation is not devoid of profit. This earth and sky, the mountains and forests, and rivers, men, and beasts, and trees—all the thousands and thousands of different things that are in the world, they constitute one vast machine of which the world is the habitation. The sun’s issuing in the daytime with steadfast regularity, and afterwards the coming on of night, and the gleaming of the moon and of the stars; the summer heat at one time, the winter at another, and the rains at another, and through the influence of rain the production of fruits and flowers of many forms and many colours—every detail of the universe is sufficient by itself to occupy a man’s thoughts for years. And to any human being his own condition is no small subject for meditation. How a man is born, and how he is nurtured and grows, and how there pass over him the different stages of boyhood and manhood and old age, and how at last he sets forth upon a journey beyond this world—that, indeed, is a deep and difficult theme to entertain. The whole of this vast machinery has been set in motion by God for some good purpose, and will continue so to be in motion for as long as He wills. This world is only some seven or eight thousand years old, and now its time is but short, for the resurrection is at hand, and all that we see around us is hastening to destruction. It has been proved by statistics that three and a half thousand human beings die in every hour—that is to say, about one person at every moment—and an equal number, no doubt, are being born. You may easily reckon that in a single month many hundreds of thousands of persons are dying, and are being born into the world, and then consider that this has been going on uninterruptedly for seven thousand years, which means that an incalculable number of persons have already died in this world up to the present. What we call “death”, therefore, is something normal and inevitable. The greatest and mightiest kings, the most famous scholars, the cleverest physicians, even great prophets—men who had power to raise the dead to life—could not escape from death themselves. Whoever is born into this world must one day die: such is God’s imperative decree. So that if on any particular day this decree be put in force against ourselves, or against someone near and dear to us, we have no excuse for complaint or lamentation. These remarks are not mere platitudes. Think over them well, and when you realize what the true meaning of death is, I am certain you will consider as I do—that to grieve for the death of anyone is futile and unprofitable.

‘Our grief at a person’s death depends upon the strength of our attachment for him. If I hear that the Emperor of China is dead, the news does not affect me in the least, for the simple reason that there was never any tie between him and myself. And if anyone outside the family should die, even in the mohulla, unless I had some special interest in him, it would cause me very little concern. It is only when we are connected with the person by some tie that we really grieve at his death, and the stronger the tie the greater the grief. If a female cousin of my maternal grandmother’s sister-in-law’s sister’s daughter-in-law die it is nothing to me; the relationship is too distant. In fact, it is not merely relationship that has to be considered, for grief makes its presence equally felt in the case of friendship or intimacy. Thus one needs to settle which person it is in the world for whom we have the greatest attachment, and for that there is no fixed rule. We may imagine the closest relationship, and constant quarrels and disagreements. Such relations are out of the reckoning. And, on the other hand, an outsider, with whom there is no connection by blood or marriage, but strong affection and a community of interest, is often valued more than relations. But we may take it that each individual, according to his bent, has some special attachment of his own. Now, all these ties of the world’s making are based upon considerations of self-interest and profit. For if my nearest relation should set himself to oppose my interest, it is certain he would lose my affection; and if an outsider should bestir himself for my benefit, it is certain he would be esteemed as dear as any relation. And it does not necessarily follow that the benefits which create ties of this kind should be such as can be estimated in rupees and pice, although, no doubt, this is frequently the case. Sometimes a tie is created by the mere expectation of some advantage. I have many friends who do not give me anything, but the mere prospect of their being willing to help me, in the event of my requiring their assistance, becomes a reason for my attaching myself to them. I might pursue this topic to any length, and it is one which might be discussed at great length with advantage, but it was my sole intention in this letter to deal with the subject of parental ties, and if I have leisure, please God, I will some day write a book about worldly attachments and send it to you.



NAZIR AHMAD (1831–1912) was a well-known Urdu writer and colonial administrator. Besides the fame he achieved as a writer and thinker in his lifetime, he was admired for his attempts at social and religious reform. Nazir Ahmad died of a stroke in 1912.

G. E. WARD was a civil servant in Bengal. When he retired he studied and taught Urdu at Wadham College, Oxford University.

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