In his tale Parīkṣā, Munshi Premchand gives an account of the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah’s infamous massacre of Delhi in 1738. Premchand richly describes the decadence of Delhi in those days as built on the exploitation of the provinces. He describes a civilization in moral, psychological, and political decay—a civilization in collapse, a civilization not unlike our own. Below is the Dua Collective’s translation followed by an interpretation of the story.
The army of Nadir Shah was massacring the people of Delhi. Rivers of blood flowed in the streets. Chaos broke out in every direction. The markets were closed. The people of Delhi locked themselves indoors, fearing for their lives. Nobody’s life was spared. Here, a house burned, there a bazaar was looted, all around pleas for mercy went unheard. The bloodthirst of the rich could not be extinguished. The crudeness, ruthlessness and ghoulishness of the human heart had put on its most macabre face. It was at this time that Nadir Shah entered the Imperial Palace.
In those days, Delhi was the center of absolute decadence. Items of ceremony and embellishment filled the house of the rich. Women did no work other than make themselves beautiful. Men had no worries other than the pursuit of pleasure. Politics was replaced by flowery words. Wealth came to Delhi yanked from the provinces, and flowed like water. Prostitutes’ business was booming. Some kept pairs of exotic birds and made them fight for their amusement. The whole city was lost in a lustful slumber. Nadir Shah arrived at the Imperial Palace and there, upon seeing the riches, his eyes widened. He was born into an poor household. He had spent his entire life on the battlefield. He had never developed a taste for luxury. Where then was this empire of pleasure next to the suffering of the battleground? Wherever he looked he could hardly tear his eyes away.
It was evening. Nadir Shah and his generals sauntered around and picked up whatever things they liked. They came by the legislature and sat on the embroidered cushions of the throne. There, he told his generals to leave, took off his weapons, placed them on the floor, and called the palace steward. He told his order: I want to see the Royal Ladies dance. Tell them to deck themselves up with clothes and jewelry and bring them to me. Listen up, don’t delay! I will not entertain any objections or refusals.
The steward heard Nadir Shah’s order, and lost his senses. How could ladies who had never come under the gaze of the sun come to such a gathering? Not to speak of dancing here! The royal ladies had never been so disrespected. Oh demon! Your mind is still not at peace even after painting Delhi red with blood. But to say one word in front of Nadir Shah was like jumping into the mouth of a fire. With a bow of the head and an adaab, he went to the Queens’ apartments and told them of Nadir Shah’s order; along with this he gave the decree that this order was not up for debate, that Nadir Shah would not entertain any objections or entreaties. The royal family had never fallen upon such misfortune, but had no option to save their life besides capitulating to the will of the victorious emperor.
The royal ladies heard this order and became stupefied. An air of grief came over the royal apartments. The usual hustle and bustle was gone. A hundred hearts cursed this tyrant. Some turned their eyes to the sky pleading for help, some fingered their prayer beads, but not one woman’s eyes went to a sword or dagger. Though Rajput blood flowed through the veins of many of these women, their lust for sensory pleasures turned their ancestral “Jauhar” fires cold. Their drive to satisfy all their desires had completely destroyed their self-respect. They had no time to counsel amongst each other to make a plan to preserve their dignity. Each passing moment decided their fate.
Tiring from their distress, the ladies finally decided to face the sinner. Tears flowed from their eyes and sighs escaped their breasts as they put on jewel encrusted ornaments. On eyes moistened with tears they applied kohl, on bodies drenched with sadness, they smeared perfume. One woman braided her locks as another hung a string of pearls in the parting of her hair. There wasn’t one woman of firm resolve who had enough faith in God or in herself to defy this order.
Not even one hour had gone by when, one by one, sparkling with ornaments, faces so radiant they made rosebuds blush, fragrances swirling about them and anklets jingling, the women came to the royal court and stood in front of Nadir Shah.
Nadir Shah took one sideways glance at this group of fairies and leaned back on the cushions. He kept his sword and dagger in front of him. After a moment, he blinked his eyes sleepily. He stretched and turned away from them. They could hear the sounds of his snores and realized that he had fallen into a deep sleep. A half an hour had passed and the ladies stood as before with their heads bowed, like paintings on a wall. Some of the more thick skinned ladies looked at Nadir Shah from the edge of their veils and in hushed voices whispered, “What a terrifying appearance! What fearful eyes! What a huge body! Is he a man or a God?”
Suddenly, Nadir Shah’s eyes opened. The group of fairies had not moved. Seeing his awakened state, the ladies lowered their heads and huddled together like sheep. Everyone’s heart beat at the thought that this tyrant could, at any moment, give them the order to sing and dance. Then what will happen? God himself could not understand the whims of this despot! But they would not dance! Even if it cost them their lives! They would not humiliate themselves any further.
All of a sudden, Nadir Shah spoke out in a harsh voice, “Oh women of God, I called you here to give you a test, and I regret to inform you that my assumptions about you were proven right down to the last word! When the women of a civilization have no honor, that civilization becomes a corpse. I wanted to see if you had some dignity left in you, but I see you do not. That is why I called you here. I didn’t want to disrespect you. If I wanted to lead a idle life, I would be a shepherd grazing my sheep. Nor am I motivated by the need to indulge my senses, because if I were, I would have been in Persia listening to the twangs of the Sitar and Sarod, which I much prefer over the music of Hindustan. I only wanted to test you. Seeing you all, I feel true regret that the fires of self-respect no longer burn in you. Was it not possible that you would crush my order under the soles of your feet? When you came to the assembly, I gave you one more chance. I used sleep as a pretense for you women of God to see if any one of you would pick up the dagger and stab me in the gut. I swear upon my faith that if any one of you had put a hand on the knife, I would have been happy beyond limits; I would have bowed my head before those delicate hands. But I am sad to see that not one daughter remains in the clan of Temur who will raise her hand against one who dishonored her. Now this Sultanate can no longer live. Its days are numbered. Its mark will soon be swept from the Earth. You may go, and try if you can to save this Sultanate, otherwise you will continue to be slaves to decadence until you leave this Earth.
Premchand introduces the women of the Mughal empire as mere ornaments who are completely disconnected from their heritage of resistance. He says that “Though Rajput blood flowed through the veins of many of these women, their lust for sensory pleasures turned their ancestral ‘Jauhar’ fires cold” (जौहर की पूरानी आग ठंडी कर दी थी). The practice of “jauhar” is a custom in which the woman of the Rajput community would commit suicide en masse by setting themselves on fire rather than be taken by a conquering army. Premchand paints a picture of how the Delhi elite lost their ability to stand for principle because they were consumed by their own materialism and opulence.
Premchand scathingly describes the behavior of the royal women as they equivocate about how to respond to Nadir Shah’s order to dance for him. He reminds us again and again throughout the story that the women had opportunities to defend their honor, but chose not to. Premchand holds the women accountable for their actions rather than treating them like victims, and places the responsibility for their fate squarely in their own hands. Unlike politics of today which frames people as victims of their identities, he depicts the women as having agency, and capable of changing their situations and the world. Through his contrasting descriptions of their weeping and sighing with their primping and preening, he shows how their self-pity is in fact a mask for hypocrisy and opportunism.
Premchand’s final paragraph, in which Nadir Shah reveals his true motives, delivers the core message of the story: a civilization collapses when its own people stop taking responsibility for their actions and worship things rather than serve people. His descriptions resonate for our own times in which wealth is concentrated among a tiny ruling elite and people who live in Empire are more concerned with pursuing individual pleasure and furthering their careers than freeing humanity; they would rather pursue an illusory freedom within society rather than the freedom to change it. The parasitic financial wealth of monopoly capital today mirrors the frivolous consumption of the decaying Mughal civilization in “Parīkṣā.”
Premchand ends the story with Nadir Shah scornfully advising the women to try to save their civilization, though implies that it is beyond salvation.
As Martin Luther King says in his Riverside Speech in 1967:
“I am convinced that… we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must… rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Like Premchand, Martin Luther King holds the people of America accountable for their actions. The moral authority of the Black Radical Tradition teaches us that we can live a life of honor and purpose if we put humanity above our own individual wants, and stand up to the empire of finance capital, which is built upon exploitation, consumerism, and war.