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Friday, January 9, 2015

Meywa Jan Begum Fake Pregnancy Case | An Oriental Perspective

Hi Friends,

Sometime back Abhay had shared the case of Meywa Jan, one of Humayun's wives, who had faked her pregnancy for almost a year. Here is the link to that astounding tale:

When a Begum Faked Her Pregnancy

Today I am going to re-visit this tale from a different perspective, not that of a western translator, but that of a Indian. 


A few days back, I came across this same tale from Gulbadan Begum's memoirs of Humayun, Ahval-i Humayun Badshah. The interesting point is that the memoirs had been translated into English by a Victorian lady, Annette Beveridge in 1902. The brief extract I came across was by an Indian Associate Professor of South Asian Civilizations at the Emory University, Atlanta. She was comparing the "original Persian manuscript" and the "English translation" and found the latter falling short on many counts.

According to her, the Victorian lady's limited knowledge of the Timurid-Mughal world flattened out its rich cultural nuances and reduced the memoirs to a flat rendition of events associated with early Mughal domestic life, as seen by Gulbadan Begum. The richness of the Persian language was lost in a literal translation, including the forced translation of Persian words that had rich historical associations and no equivalent English synonyms. Very often, even the characters, it seems, were viewed through the sensibilities of a western aristocratic colonialist, for whom only the west was civilized and the rest of the world uncivilized.

This associate professor took Meywa Jan's case as an illustration to show how Gulbadan Begum narrated an incident in her memoirs and how the tale sounds when translated literally into English by a Victorian lady. The episode is set in 1532, 2 years after the death of Babur, when Humayun is trying to retain and expand his father's territories in India.

The Curious Case of Meywa Jan Begum

The very first sentence in Gulbadan Begum's account of the case, as translated by Ms. Beveridge, is:

"My Lady Maham Begum had a great longing and desire to see a son of Humayun."

Note: Please refer to the earlier post by Abhay, whose link has been given at the beginning of this post, for the complete account of Meywa Jan. {

In the Timurid-Mughal world, it was the duty of the younger wives to carry forward the lineage by begetting children and the responsibility of the senior women to advise the younger wives about such duties. Now, this may sound offensive to our modern sensibilities as, no doubt, it did to Ms. Beveridge with her western sensibility that a woman should be considered just a reproductive machine. (But, don't we all recognize this as a very Indian tradition?)

However, in the Timurid-Mughal world, the birth of a royal child meant the perpetuation of the family and empire. It was to this revered tradition of carrying forward the family lineage that Maham Begum was alluding to and expecting Meywa Jan to fulfill.This tradition was especially significant in the times of Babur and Humayun when the risk of disappearance of the family was a real risk. Babur faced constant threats from the Uzbeks in Central Asia and Humayun from the Afghans in Hindustan. Hence, multiple marriages and the birth of many children was crucial in those times. (The situation calmed down during Akbar's times, but the tradition of polygamy continued.)

It was in this context that Maham Begum wanted heirs for Humayun and, for that, she was constantly match making for him.

Now consider how Ms. Beveridge views the role of Maham Begum in this episode. She wrote another article on the life and writings of Gulbadan Begum in the introduction to her translation, in which she described Maham Begum as:

"Maham Begum was a clever woman, and both as wife and as widow, made herself felt in her home. Lady Rosebody [Gulbadan Begum] lifts the parda and shows us the Empress-mother busied in duties not often thus disclosed to the outside eye. In telling the story, which for the sake of its many special points we quote in full, she has no air of being indiscreet, and is, as may be seen, quite matter-of-fact."

Ms. Beveridge sees Maham Begum as only a "clever" (read shrewd) Empress-mother, who is trying her best to hook up her son with a woman who can produce the much-wanted heir

Note: Those who have seen the Jodha Akbar show on TV can understand the pressure that was on Akbar to produce an heir and his own desperation in this regard, because his life was constantly in danger from his relatives and enemies.

Maham Begum may very well be the archetypal mother from Pride and Prejudice who will go to any lengths to get her daughters married, according to Ms. Beveridge. But we, who come from the Indian subcontinent, (or even other parts of Middle East and South-East Asia) are well aware of older, wiser women who advise and guide the younger women in the (extended) family to preserve the family lineage and traditions. Gulbadan Begum most probably wished to project Maham Begum as an elder of the family with the wisdom of experience, status and authority to guide the younger women in upholding traditions. Maham Begum wasn't one of a kind, as described by Ms. Beveridge in this regard. She was simply one of many women who used their influence across intimate, personal circles as well as formal, authoritative circles to maintain and continue family customs.  

All women had a specific role to play. While younger women were expected to produce heirs, older women arranged marital alliances that would help establish links with other powerful dynasties and ensure support and protection for the the family in times of need. In this way, women were both inheritors and transmitters of traditions and played a vital role in preserving the Timurid-Mughal family over several centuries.

Another indication of a pro-Victorian tilt in Ms. Beveridge's work is her translation of Persian words that have no equivalent meanings in English. For instance, Ms. Beveridge uses the phrase "My Lady" for the Persian word "akam". Now, Ms. Beveridge understands that "aka" is a term of respect from a junior to a senior and that it also means "an elder brother". She doesn't seem to understand how to apply this word to a woman. So she translates it to "My Lady". Probably this translation sounded very romantic to her and suggested that the lady was of high status. But, Gulbadan Begum used the word "akam" with not only respect but also a lot of affection. Akam is very close to the usage of khanum or Begum. All these words indicate privilege, reverence and deference (esp with age). In other words, Gulbadan Begum was talking very affectionately and deferentially about Maham Begum as a close, elderly woman of the family rather than just respectfully about an Empress-mother.

{Taken from Humayun-Nama in English, by Beveridge, Pg-89/90}

Persian Text from Humayun-Nama depicting the incident:

This has been sourced from the Persian account of Humayun-Nama few lines before section-22a, and then between 22a and 22b. {Link}


The Crux of the Matter

Now I come to a moot point in the entire episode. 

In the previous blog post, readers raised the point that Meywa Jan had fooled the emperor and his mother for a year just so that she could enjoy attention and were aghast that she had not been punished. Now Ms. Beveridge has used the word "fraud" for the Persian word "havasak". Havasak is from havas and means desire or caprice. Ms. Beveridge seems to have viewed the word havasak "negatively", believing perhaps that the word was used to condemn Meywa Jan's act.

However, given the obsession with marriage and childbirth in the Timurid-Mughal family, as mentioned above, it is hardly surprising that Meywa Jan desperately wanted to believe in her own pregnancy. She wanted to be accepted as someone of consequence and not be relegated to the dusty corners of the harem. Gulbadan Begum didn't intend to project her act as deliberately fraudulent but as one that was marked by her dilemma and tension in preserving her position vis a vis fooling her husband, the emperor, and his family.


Today, there is a scientific term for this condition - hysterical pregnancy or pseudocyesis. In this condition, a woman genuinely believes she is pregnant and exhibits all the symptoms of pregnancy except that there is no fetus. This may be due to psychological factors. The symptoms may persist for years. 
When such a woman learns that she is not actually pregnant, she can go into severe depression and may need psychological support/therapy to recover.      

I don't claim that Meywa Jan was a victim of hysterical pregnancy. But I am willing to give her the benefit of doubt, especially because she was not likely punished, as mentioned in the comments in the previous post.{Link-1 Link-2} So people at that time may have realized that she had not meant to deceive but was in need of mental or emotional support.

Most of us rely on "English" translations of Persian Mughal chronicles. In such readings, we have to, however, remember that the cultural nuances of a great Indian /Asian empire may well be lost in translation due to lack of understanding or appreciation for the same by the translator.

This article has been posted under the Mughals(Akbar) and Jodha-Akbar section of this history BLOG.

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  1. Very nice post Radhika.
    Some extremely minute observations have been made in this post. :)

    Yes there are certain words in Persian language for which the foreign translators could not define an equivalent word in English, that time. As more and more research is done by scholars, the details become more refined.

    For example : Sometimes, while translating from the Persian memoirs, the word "like mother" is translated as simply "mother" . This leads to confusion in parentage in some cases. Because, the actual Persian text meant to describe a lady who was "like a mother" to someone, but the English translation makes it simply mother. :-P

    ^^ I read this in a reputed research paper, which i am planning to use in one of future blog posts. :))

    All in all, i must say, you have raised a very plausible point that, while translating from Persian sources into English, the meanings are often lost.
    And in some cases they change the complete meaning. :(

    Coming to present case you have elaborated a very thoughtful point and that is the difference in the understanding of the practices of Timurid - Mughal world, which often leads to serious problems in understanding the depth of an incident. Looking forward to more interesting views on this post. :)

  2. True, Abhay!

    I remember the case where some were confused whether Jahangir was closer to his foster mother than to his own mother. It is therefore wonderful that you often provide the Persian source also so that readers can verify the translation.

    I only want to say that whenever we read history, we should leave our own sensibilities aside and examine the events and characters in the context of the time and society they lived and functioned in. :)

  3. radhika - very gud post. in turki language we write aka. aka iz used 2 show respect. it iz not used xclusively 4 women. it can b used 4 men also.
    aka iz used 4 elder brother also. i was reading an old turki account translated by arvin vembery, a scholar 4rm hungary. he says aka is used 4 respect. along wid erskine, annete beveridge took help 4rm him 2.
    wht abhay has written above iz very valid. we cannot rely on persian 2 english translated accounts completely. i had seen scholars in my university who read persian accounts 2 knw better details of topics. dey dont prefer translated version. but v ppl can not read persian versions always 2 filter out minute small errors.
    very insightful topic u hv chosen.

  4. agree wid u radhika - i 2 say 2 ppl 2 read history widout keeping present day society in mind. old society had different norms. v can not compare the 2.

  5. Iqra,

    Exactly, you and Abhay are correct. That is the whole point - that translations cannot be relied on for 100% accuracy. It is difficult to read original documents when we don't know the language or don't have access to them. And we cannot turn to originals for weeding out minute errors. But for an overall understanding, it is advisable to refer to the original as much as possible and also to multiple sources :)

    I was piqued by curiosity when I read the Meywa Jan post by Abhay and I was disturbed by the amount of negative press she received. This post is a small step in trying to look at her more kindly. Even Maham Begam, who was an important figure in history, should be seen with more understanding at least by us, who are so familiar with such matriarchs in our own family circles. :)

  6. Iqra,

    One point. It is said in the post that aka is used for men and akam for women. It is a term of respect and also of affection/endearment. :)

  7. yes radhika - reading 'tis post i was completely able to get wht u tried 2 say. in 2dayz tym 2 many mother in laws want progeny aftr marriage 4rm the couple. 'tis thinking iz not limited 2 ny class. educated ppl also practice it. wht maham begum ws doing ws understandable considering tat olden days n adverse times.

  8. Wow Radhika di , it's indeed a good observation on the previous post ... And yeah , we cannot fully rely on the English translation for any language to be decoded , take our south Indian languages or HIndi !!! And regarding that Rosebody translation is indeed funny ;);) , the disease is something new for me to hear but i remembered the Ruqu nautanki here , as in case of serial their was no proper treatment given to the polygamy system of marriage !!! THeir was this threat of so many possiblilities like Enemies , diseases or accidents through which they can lose their childs :( so men indeed had so many wives through which they can secure an heir for their kingdom n lineage ... Ultimate sufferers were women , who had to bear other women relationship with their husband :(:(

  9. Interesting write-up Radhika.

    'Desperate times call for desperate measures'. I am applying this phrase on Meywa Jaan. She appears to have been insecure about being unable to mother a child and resorted to fake pregnancy claim, just in order to appease Maham Begum and secure her position in the Imperial harem. She could also have been a victim of a psychological disorder that led her to hallucinate a non-existent pregnancy.

    You have beautifully highlighted the importance of the knowledge of the language of the original text of any work, prior to attempting a translation. The example of the original Persian text of Gulbadan's Begum's 'Humayun Nama', in comparison with Annette Beveridge's English translation of the same, clearly bring out the various differences. An improper grasp of the language completely changes the description of the actual happenings recorded in the original text.

    Thank you for writing this informative article.

  10. You r at it again, Radhika:). Dwelling deep into the obvious things n excruciating gems of thought !. I too always maintained that the beauty of the language is lost in translation, especially if the language belongs to different culture.. Whenever I read the translation of Urdu poetry, I always wonder what cud be the original word.! Old Hindi songs also had such beautiful words, which cannot be captured in one Hindi word, n thus need to be explained to the younger generation. :) Thank u fr the post.

  11. Radhika, As useal Good Post i liked, You try to find out the reason, Maybee , She faked, Some presuusre, or Maybee Some Psychological, Reason, or she needed that time, some Help.(Modern days we say,Psysiatrist, Help )

    Agree with you, In our society, Also, Senior, Ladies wants, Child should be Born, as soon as possibile.They tell us various methods, Lol,But if we see Back history, Heir was too imp, Cause of Own kingdom safty. If we see, In Ramyana, Dashrath, or JANAK, also used, Methods, Now child should be Born, In Mahabharta Many ex, Child How borned, It means Childs were, Key of Secure Kingdom.or Practically also reason, Child is the Key of Everyhouse.

    so .Maybee reason, Meywa, Speaked Lie,or sometimes,symptoms, also same, without pregnancey, feeling comes, pregnant women. Deep science works here.

    Five year before, in My neighbour, Women pregnant, 14 years of her Marriage, she took Ultrasound, but No baby shown doctors,Doctores adviced, Some reason, Cleansing is necessary, But Female refused,she said Doctors, speaking Lie, Because,symptoms were, Pregnant women.

    She not reached mazor depresson, so doctors, did cleansing starting of Nine Month, she was on doctors observation.So both reason, can be happen, Gaining attention,sometimes, Cause of, Losing Other things,These type of things happen Even in these days also happen.

    (Famous story for Gandhari, Very famous )

    (Gandhari gave birth to a hard piece of lifeless flesh that was not a baby at all. ),

    So maybee these type of things Common, that time.

  12. Charu,
    Well articulated. If we go through the English translation of Humayun Nama then, at many places we find footnotes, where the translator was not getting the meanings of the words used in the text. Perhaps due to some extremely rare words used, or due to the fact that the "fully justified" English word does not exist for them.

  13. yes geeta - language looks good in original form. if v translate urdu - farsi ghazal -shayari in english it looses sheen. actual feelings r lost. old hindi songs r best xmple.

  14. ayushi - gud points. i wrote 2 radhika above. 2day 2 - some mother in laws want progeny aftr marriage. dere cn b many reasons - mental/psychological/gaining attention. bt meywa jan was not punished.
    i dont knw gandhari story. plz xplain me whn u like. luks gud.

  15. haha suganya. nice observation. i laughed reading rosebody translation 4 gulbadan begam. ms beveridge has taken literal meaning. gul means rose - badan mean body - she translated it princess rosebody in humayun nama.

  16. ws sad 4 women those days. bt polygamy ws practiced tat time. women had 2 adjust. radhika n i discussed above - practices shud b seen in context of medieval times.

  17. Hi,

    Good Morning, everyone! :) Busy but trying to read the wonderful discussion you are having.

    This post can be seen at many levels, as many have done. I will list these in NO particular order.

  18. 1. Translation is fraught with risk. Like mentioned by all of you too. :)
    The translator isn't aware of cultural nuances.
    Language and expression may be limited, esp based on translator's ability. Often a figurative translation is better than a literal translation. I have read excellent translations of Indian vernacular language short stories into English. I would personally recommend the Katha series. :)
    The translator's cultural and other personal bias may colour the narrative, as happened in MJ case.

  19. Hi Iqra,Gandhari was famous character of Mahabharta, wife of Dhiritarashtra, Dhiritarastra, was by Birth Blind, so Gandhari , , took comitment, she will not see this World, because, her husband can't see this world, so acc to story, Gandhari, cause of her Pati Dharm, Got some Powers. Link i am posting.She used her powers to Save her Son Durodhana,,

  20. 2. There is a great desire for heirs always, but in the context of the post, it was a great necessity too. There was a real threat that the dynasty could end with Humayun, as he faced trouble not only from external enemies but also from his own family.

    This is the difference between desiring a heir and needing someone to continue the lineage, esp a royal lineage, because the future of an entire empire lies on the presence of an heir.

    The British also used this point of heirs to annex many a princely state in India.

    In this regard, I would say Maham Begum's fears/concerns were well-founded. And beyond the usual concerns of a typical family matriarch today.

  21. 3. Human beings have a great need to be accepted / "to fit in". This need is greater than even the primary needs of food, clothing and shelter.

    MJ had to resort to faking her pregnancy or perhaps believed in her own pregnancy for the simple reason that she wanted to be accepted as a "welcome" person in the harem and in Humayun's life. She was from a lower strata of society who had been thrust by fate into the highest echelons of society and she wanted desperately to retain her place. A fall from grace meant a lifetime of hell on earth.

    When even Bega Begum had to fight with Humayun for attention and was even remonstrated for this and asked not to demand attention again, what hope did a Meywa Jan stand?

    The precipitating factor for the MJ incident was Bega Begum's pregnancy and subsequent birth of a girl child.

  22. 4. The first 3 points have been raised by everyone. One point that has not been raised is the point that drove me to write this post in the first place.

    The reactions of mostly women blog readers to MJ's deception surprised and somewhere pained me. We are quick to condemn a woman and label her guilty and fit to be punished. But why did she do something? We rarely stop to think of this. We accept the stereotypical attitude that she must have done something for personal / material gain.

    My heart goes to MJ. Unless I come across historical records that confirm that she did this act for personal attention / gain, I will believe that she was an innocent young girl, who tried to consolidate her shaky position in the only way she knew.

  23. Welcome Geeta! :)

    But I would consider this post successful if at least one person who reads this would adopt a kinder attitude towards women in real life and pause to think before condemning any woman for supposed "misdemeanors".

  24. Iqra,

    Depends upon the ability of the translator. :)

  25. Charu

    Beautifully expressed. :) As always!

    I would say a translator needs to have not just a good grasp of language but also the cultural ethos in which the narrative is set and the characters involved, esp if the characters are / were real people.

    This applies to dramatization as well. I would say an Ekta Kapoor would / should have had a greater understanding of the language / cultural background of the JA story, but the she failed even more miserably than Beveridge in presenting the story.

  26. Abhay

    If synonyms do not exist, translators should describe /convey the meaning through other means rather than let the limitations of language limit the depth / veracity of the translated text. Literal translations, word-by-word, will always fail abjectly because synonyms do not always exist and, even if they do, do not carry the depth of meaning or cultural association or feeling of the original word. :)

  27. Iqra, Suganya

    Being a woman esp in India has always been a curse. Medieval women had it tough(er) because of polygamy and the importance given to child-bearing women. Even a "liberal" emperor like Akbar, while prescribing the benefits of a single wife, added that a man who had a "barren" wife could remarry for children.

  28. Yeah , that was very funny indeed for me ;) And every translation cannot match to the Beauty of the context in it's Original !!!

  29. Yeah Sadly :(:( I always find it skeptical , when many kings r reported to have many wives then !! I even heard that a king of Punjab had some 360 wives , but they didn't mention neither the year nor the name of the king !!! That was so , irritating for me to hear ... but as said before , That Age practised Polygamy and we could do nothing abt it now in this modern Age ;););P

  30. Hmmm di :(:( Sad enough , both in those Ages n current one !!! No one cant forget wat happened in Delhi :(:(:(

  31. Radhika di , WE cant confirm on a factor without any authentic proof or record and in this case your points r the fact , that comes with many y's n if's ... As far as , Mj is concerned we have this benefit of doubt and everyone can think according to themselves !!! But overall , my heart could feel the pain of those women who were considered to be NOTHING if they didnt bear a child in those AGES :(:( life would have been miserable for them , leaving the ppl who had power or wealth with them in this case :(:( Poor Them !!!

  32. Thank you, Radhika.

    Very well said both about Ms Beveridge and Ekta Kapoor.

    In this issue, I am still ready to cut some slack on Ms Beveridge. Her being from a completely different race, cultural, social and language set-up has clearly influenced her work. In spite of that, her enthusiasm and dedication in making the effort to translate an important historical work, should be appreciated.

    Several years later, Ekta Kapoor's presentation of an epic love story is pathetic.She is familiar with the culture and language of the 15th Century set-up. She has everything in her favor, right from contacts and influence to gain accurate historical facts, to all the infrastructure needed to present a historical authentically and respectfully, yet the final product on screen does not befit royalty or history. Historical facts characters have been massacred in every way possible. First of all she needs to employ writers who have no soap opera influences or experience at all.
    The manner in which Akbar has been presented since the last two weeks is demeaning to his personality.

  33. Radhika,
    This point is note worthy. You have taken Bega Begum's case & yes, when she longed for Humayun's attention despite being a "main" wife ; then, Meywa Jan Begum's "status" was not so high, as she was not even royal.

  34. Radhika
    I won't take any author's name here. I agree with your following lines>
    "cultural and other personal bias may colour the narrative. "

    Overall, all points are very well agreeable. :)

  35. Hmm...Biggest thing is that, Gulbadan Begum narrated that incident very normally and there was no mention of a punishment.

    It makes also think that they probably understood Meywa Jan Begum's "reasoning" for this act.

  36. ayushi - thanks 4 answering me. 'tis was very interesting. gr8. it iz new 2 me.

  37. Charu

    You are right - Ms. Beveridge and indeed many Europeans were impressed and driven to write accounts of Mughals without any commercial motive. Except for some errors of translation due to reasons discussed already, Ms. Beveridge did not deliberately try to distort history as much as Ekta. But then Ekta Kapoor made the show for profit and not out of love.

    It is indeed sad that an Indian production house did not have a better understanding of the cultural backdrop of the JA story and chose to present it so pathetically. There can be no excuse for them nor any tolerance.

  38. Suganya

    Sorry for the late reply. What happened in Delhi?

  39. Radhika,
    Suganya is referring to crimes perpetrated against women in society. In this case, the condemnable Delhi incident.

  40. I Referred DElhi's Nirbaya incident here :(:(

  41. Suganya

    That was really sad. Similar incidents keep happening everywhere, not just Delhi. Places like Bangalore and Mumbai which were considered safe for women are no longer so.

    Anyway, this is one aspect of being a woman. I was talking in terms of being a childless woman. Even that is considered such a sin, as if it's entirely the woman's fault.

    Btw, Suganya, have you read the Tamil/English version of Madhorubagan where the central character is a childless woman?

  42. Yeah it's true that , it happens in all cities n towns too :(:( Women have to be careful for everything , or else the blame too will accompany them sadly :(:(

    And radhika di , i have not read that book ... Is that author Sujatha book ???

  43. Suganya

    the author is Perumal Murugan. It's been in the news as the author has quit writing after protests against this book.

  44. No i havent heard abt that book yet :(:( Have u read that book ??? Is that true he has quit writing ??? SAd to know , one's work has been humiliated :(:(

  45. No, Suganya, I haven't read that book either. But read a lot about it in the media. It is a controversial book as it talks of some social customs that were allegedly prevalent in the last century in Tamil Nadu. As of now, the writer says he has quit literary pursuits. Yes, that's sad. Though I feel writers should be responsible for what they write instead of always hiding behind "freedom of expression".