I enjoy much more rummaging (well, gently) among the piles of old books on the pavements than going through new titles in prestigious bookshops. The latter, one has, in many cases, read about in reviews. So one buys them in order to further strengthen one's point of view in an on-going debate. But the rummaging, usually not very fruitful, sometimes throws up a bundle of yellow pages that causes excitement one does not expect after a certain age. Sometime back, I chanced upon Mirza Barkhurdar's Mahbub-al-Quloob on a hot morning in Anarkali. It was printed by Naval Kishore in Lahore around 1914.And in spite of being didactic, it is interesting, consisting of hundreds of stories pieced together. However, its prose suffers from ostentatious style and studied ornamentation typical of South Asia's Persian prose. I don't know but it must have been painful to read a story in which the description of human emotions is only incidental to the exhibition of one's mastery of the language. Here there is the story of a very pretty girl who is betrothed to a very brave man. (All the girls then were ravishing and all the men very brave.) Waiting for her wedding, she sits at the window looking out on the street, though what was she seeing on the street in the little town of Ardbil is not stated. A young butcher sees her and, as was to be expected, falls madly in love with her. One night he climbs into her window but leaves when she tells him that her fianc is bound to kill him. However she promises him that she would tell the fianc about the incident. She does so after the marriage and the husband divorces her immediately. Now she goes to the butcher and he, appreciating the gesture of the husband, takes her back to her husband who marries her again. Before that, she is kidnapped by hooligans, who want to violate her but she talks her way out of their clutches. The moral of the story is that the defence of the honour of a woman is very much in her own hands. Well the situations presented here are unlikely but the desired conclusion is somehow drawn. It may however be noted that the story is strictly about her honour. There is nothing about the honour of the men involved. The main thing is that a girl must guard her virginity until she delivers it safely to her husband. Well, one supposes that as long as property exists, this vulgarity will continue. Secondly, the story must have originated in Iran. No writer of South Asia would allow a butcher to fall in love with a lady of "noble birth". Wombs belong to classes as strictly as does other property. On the other hand, the language of the nursery tales (Afsanaha-e-Kuhan, Subhi, Tehran, 1950) is simpler, although the stories themselves are older. There is the female bumblebee, Khala Susakay, who has no one except her father. One day, he tells her that now he is too old to support her. She should therefore go to Hamadan and marry Uncle Ramazani. She sets off for Hamadan but, on the way, she comes across other suitors, like a grocer, a butcher and a grass-cutter but is not able to come to an agreement of marriage with any of them. Then she meets a mouse who is tender and marries him. Sometime later, he falls in boiling soup and dies. Since then, the bumblebee always wears black mourning for her husband. One is a nursery tale, drawing a stylised picture of the society in order to introduce the children to the relationships into which they are going to grow. For example, Khala Susakay asks the grocer that, if she marries him, what would he hit her with when they quarrel? He replies: with a weighing stone. She says that would kill her and rejects him. Same thing happens with the butcher and the grass-cutter. But the mouse replies he would dip his little tail in kuhl and line her eyes. So she marries him. The other story is purely didactic, training the young to conform to the prevalent class culture. However the most striking feature of both the stories, specially that of the Mahbub-al-Quloob, is the vast gap between the pre-twentieth century style of writing and the modern one. The reason, one supposes, is that our oriental languages did not change much until the middle of the nineteenth century. Then they had to cope suddenly with the modernisation brought by the West. So, instead of being transformed gradually, as happened in Europe, our languages had to, so to say, re-create themselves within a short period. That could not but create a break in their bodies. The writer is a former ambassador