With Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s passing a sun sets on Urdu literature

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* The Mirror of Beauty (2013) and The Sun That Rose From the Earth (2014) — a collection of five novellas — are only a fraction of his work, but together they speak to the themes (both historic and literary) and the poets that Faruqi followed with a passion

* Faruqi’s renditions of Ghalib and Mir and Mashafi et al are meant to humanise these frequently-mythologised people


Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, widely considered the pre-eminent Urdu writer-critic of his generation, passed away at his residence in Allahabad last week at the age of 85. Faruqi had tested positive for Covid-19 in November. His prolific Urdu work apart (beyond the scope of this article) Faruqi also translated two of his books into English — the novel The Mirror of Beauty (2013) and The Sun That Rose From the Earth (2014), a collection of five novellas. These two books are only a fraction of his life’s work, but together they speak to the themes (both historic and literary) and the poets that Faruqi followed with a passion.

The Mirror of Beauty (Kai Chaand The Sar-E-Aasman in the original Urdu) was structured around the life of Wazir Khanam, an accomplished and dazzlingly beautiful 19th-century woman (whose son would grow up to become the legendary poet Dagh). We spend a lot of time reading about her many loves. But soon the reader realises that the trajectories of these lives reveal a much broader picture — the richness and the eventual decline of Indo-Islamic culture, especially in the second half of the 19th century. With a lightness of touch that belies the big, weighty themes on display here, Faruqi tells us the story of how this decline was tied both with the fall of the Mughals, and the British Indian government becoming more powerful and influential with every passing year.

Translating one’s own work comes with a significant disadvantage — namely, the urge to edit the source text anew in every sitting. Faruqi maintained that, as far as possible, he avoided the temptation to do so. More important, he avoided ‘modernising’ the original Urdu text. He knew that the contours of modern-day English weren’t ideal for translating some of the more ornate portions of the Urdu (there are 18 words for love in Urdu, as Faruqi once said in an interview). Therefore, he used the register of a mid-19th century English speaker. He also tried to communicate the linguistic diversity of the period; a tricky assignment within the context of an English novel-in-translation. Sentences such as “Her voice was sophisticated, well modulated with a tinge of Mewār with traces of the sweetness of Braj” may not mean much to the lay reader (particularly if they’re not North Indian). But to those in the know, it brings a rare, polyphonic literary pleasure.

At just a smidge under a thousand pages, The Mirror of Beauty looked and felt every bit like a magnum opus, the culmination of a lifetime of work. Even though, as critic Ziya us Salaam wrote in The Hindu, the Urdu reading public actually considers it one of his lighter works, especially compared to his four-volume critical study of the poet Mir Taqi Mir. For this writer, however, The Sun That Rose From the Earth felt like the more personal project.

These five novellas are fictions based on the lives of various Urdu poets, covering the time between the 15th and the 18th centuries. Faruqi typically enters the lives of these poets through fictional conduits — for instance, in Bright Star, Lonely Splendour, the narrator is a Rajput man called Beni Madho Singh, who visits the elderly poet Ghalib in 1862, just a few years before the latter’s death. Ghalib then offers several insights about his life and past work, and these sections are Proustian mini-epics, feats of detailed and hyper-focused remembrance, rich in detail. But Madho Singh is narrating his recollections circa 1918, when he is himself an old man. This is, therefore, remembrance twice over, a kind of breaking of the fourth wall if you will. Faruqi was ever alert to the possibilities offered by such literary devices. In The Mirror of Beauty, too, he ‘inserts’ the writer in the text by introducing a contemporary researcher called Faruqi, who wants to know more about the life of Wazir Khanam.

This part-fictional, part documentary mode of writing allowed Faruqi to weave in elements of his critical practice into his fiction. He was, à la Samuel Johnson, perennially fascinated with the lives of poets while maintaining that a poet’s work stands alone, on its own legs, and biographical details are not a prerequisite for literary discourse. Here, for instance, is the poet Mir within the pages of The Sun That Rose From the Earth, ruminating about the ordinariness of his own life — and the equalising nature of love.

“I am a poet, perhaps a great poet, but a lover? I am just like any other lover. Not above him, not below him. All of us feel the same heat of lust when it boils over; all of us have the same self-regard, and perhaps the same contradictory desire to lose oneself in the ocean of love, to let oneself go, to destroy one’s own self and be reborn in someone else’s self. I am not alone in this. There have been others, there will be others.”

Faruqi’s missives on the lives of real-life poets are every bit as compelling as, say, Roberto Bolaño’s fictions about made-up poets. And there’s a lot of common ground there in terms of literary objectives. Bolaño’s (fictional) fascist writers in Nazi Literature in the Americas, for example, could not fathom their own growing irrelevance and their denial took the form of relentless mythology. Conversely, Faruqi’s renditions of Ghalib and Mir and Mashafi et al are meant to humanise these frequently-mythologised people.

The idea was to combine the ruthlessness of the biographer-critic with the empathy of the novelist — and luckily for all of us, it pays off spectacularly. Both The Sun That Rose From the Earth and The Mirror of Beauty are reminders of just what we’ve lost with Faruqi’s passing.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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