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A Conversation With: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

A Conversation With: Literary Critic and Novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi ♦

faruqiIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?
I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.

Writers in English can usually assume a global readership. Though Urdu was a lingua franca, at least in India, 150 years ago, its contemporary literature has a more specific audience. How did the shift in audience affect your translation?
The novel is slightly longer than the Urdu version, because I had to explain certain things. And of course translating two lines of verse in Urdu might expand to four or five lines in English. One theory of translation is that it is worthless unless it sounds like translation. I really don’t agree with that at all, because when you are transferring a certain kind of cultural code and symbolism, which is so utterly alien, it is unfair on the reader to make her feel, all the time, that “yes, I am reading something in high Urdu in the English form.” Like some English woman wearing Indian dress.

How did you go about researching and reinventing the worlds of 19th century Delhi — from the descriptions of carpet-weaving to courtly etiquette?
I didn’t do any systematic, formal research. As I wrote, I did consult a few books when I needed to verify some particular detail, dates mostly. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the novel had always existed in my head as an amorphous, identity-less entity. Facts, memories, impressions — and of course my reading before I’d began to compose the novel — it was all there — a chaos, especially because I didn’t have anything like an idea to write a novel with Wazir Khanam as the chief character.

Of course, I was incomparably enriched by my love for pre-modern Persian and Urdu poetry. Later, what went into my unconscious, more than I realized, was my reading of the Dastan of Amir Hamza, a series of loosely linked oral romances whose 46 volumes and 42,000-plus pages and more than 20 million words I read, and in some cases reread, since about 1980. I’ll always remain obliged to Frances Pritchett [professor emerita at Columbia University] who directed my attention to the Dastan.

For both Urdu and English novels, you restricted yourself to words from the 19th-century lexicon. “The Mirror of Beauty” is very readable, but is the original book a challenge for native Urdu speakers?.
People have been admiring it for sheer size and expanse, but everybody has complained: you didn’t give a glossary, you should have given the Farsi [Persian] in translation. Even in Pakistan, people complained. Not that it was not popular – it went through two editions in four years or so, which is somewhat remarkable for an Urdu novel. I made it the way it is quite consciously, writing in a register which is no longer spoken — archaic Urdu which is unfamiliar to most people. I didn’t care. I was doing my thing. I had to be faithful to my own vision.

There’s a strong rapport between Indian and Pakistani authors writing in English – they review each other’s books, travel to each other’s festivals, make the same award lists. What about Indian and Pakistani writers in Urdu?
On a personal level, there is a lot of friendliness, a lot of coming and going and writing and reading, but it’s not wholehearted promotion. I can promote a Pakistani writer or book wholeheartedly, but the Pakistani literary establishment is reluctant to promote Indian writers so strongly. Almost every important writer who died in Pakistan or is taken as a Pakistani now – take Faiz [Ahmad Faiz], Rashid, [Saadat Hasan] Manto – everybody has written about them in India. You can’t find a comparative example [in Pakistan]. Otherwise, they are extremely cordial; they will feed you, they will wine you, they will dine you.

You’ve mentioned your interest in the historical fiction of A.S. Byatt and Peter Ackroyd, among others. Are there any fictionalizations of India, particularly its Mughal history, that you looked at?
In English, Amitav Ghosh’s novels, which I have read and admired: “Sea of Poppies,” followed by “River of Smoke.” A lot of history has gone into them, although it is a history of a very narrow area, that is Bengal of the early 19th or late 18th century, particularly the opium trade. He certainly has full grasp on the material.

You’ve suggested that you wrote “The Mirror of Beauty” not just as a pleasant trip back through time. Could you talk a bit more about that?
I was hoping that if young people read this book, they will learn more about themselves – where they came from, how they were formed — the pain of separation, of discontinuity [from] what the world was before 1857. Though it was already crumbling, they had a world which was self-conscious, which was sure of its self-worth, which could match with any other culture or any other society anywhere – but for the adverse information and propaganda handed out to us by our colonial master.

In any case, every past is worth revisiting, even if it is the dirtiest possible past. But this past is not dirty. This past is honorable. And this past is more literate, more cultured, more sophisticated than today’s present. I am hoping people who take the trouble of reading it will find it an easy book to read, in the sense that the story goes along and keeps you interested, and ultimately they will know where they came from, what they were.

Originally published in The New York Times“India Ink” blog, July 17, 2013.

Published: July 17, 2013

Portrait of a lady

The last century of Mughal rule comes to life in The Mirror of Beauty, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s compelling picture of Delhi and its wider world ♦

 

 View as PDFThe Mirror of Beauty

Beloved of poets and coveted by kings, conquered and constructed again and again, Delhi in its present avatar is a tough city to love. Yet many still regard it with affection, looking through the rosy veil of nostalgia at the capital’s embarrassment of ruins: from the tiny, pipal-shaded shrines in Shahjahanabad courtyards, to the Kalan Masjid, steeply soaring out of a narrow alley near Turkman Gate. What would it be like to see the city’s empty palace rooms and silent tombs fill with life again?

It is to this Delhi of the past, specifically the 19th century, that Shamsur Rahman Faruqi allows the reader to travel in his monumental 2006 Urdu novel Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman, now reworked in English as The Mirror of Beauty by the author himself. The pinnacle of its creator’s fictional oeuvre, this novel sits atop a lifetime’s worth of work in Urdu literature. Faruqi, who ideally should need no introduction to the English literary scene, was born in 1935 and lives in Allahabad. A respected Urdu critic who also writes poetry and fiction (and had a career in the Indian Postal Service), he is that rare literary figure who is both steeped in the culture of his own language and well-versed in other traditions. For example, the novel’s envoi is taken from “The Traveller”, a 1763 poem by Oliver Goldsmith who writes of being, “Impelled, with steps unceasing to pursue/ Some fleeting good that mocks me with the view.” In The Mirror of Beauty, Faruqi finally captures that view – of India seen through the portal of its capital city, during the period when “The Company may have been ruling, but it did not reign”. And he does so in gorgeously detailed miniature style, with figures of complex hue, set against both urban and natural landscapes. At the very centre of the frame is Wazir Khanam, a woman so beautiful that “you would feel that the Tailor of Eternity had cut all dresses for her and her alone”. As a miniaturist illustrates myth, so Faruqi fictionalises history: Wazir Khanam was in fact the mother of the poet Dagh Dehlvi and eventually the wife of an heir apparent to Bahadur Shah Zafar.

mirrorYet in Faruqi’s portrait of her, Wazir is more than simply wife, mother, daughter or lover. He brings the interior life of this otherwise peripheral person to the fore, with finesse. She does not necessarily control her destiny – no character really has that kind of power – but she pushes against fate. While she accepts the fact of her beauty, even uses it to her advantage, Wazir’s spirit yearns to transcend the societal expectations of her sex. In a telling moment, British Resident William Fraser, who was murdered in 1835 (a death Faruqi vividly brings to life), woos Wazir and mistakes her for a mere nautch girl: “In spite of his vast experience and natural capacity for discerning subtleties,” Faruqi writes, “Fraser missed out completely at judging Wazir and did not appreciate that her own sense of self was that of a refined woman of good family, though of decidedly liberal views.” In Faruqi’s sensitive delineation, Wazir is neither stereotype nor anachronism.

Around this extraordinary woman circle the men of the story: her lovers, her husbands, her son Dagh, her forefathers in Kashmir and Rajasthan. Then there are saints, soldiers, scientists and, most of all, the poets, who form a colourful crowd behind Wazir. Dagh and Mirza Ghalib are two of the book’s most verbose verse-mongers, but for many characters, poetry itself is the medium through which their most emotional conversations take place. Faruqi, whose many poetry-related accomplishments include a four-volume project on Mir Taqi Mir, presents the conversation between 19th-century poets and those who preceded them as a continuum, running through public performances and secret notes, in royal chambers and chai-stalls. Summoning the spirit of the Persian mystic poet Hafiz, an augur tells Wazir: “If you read his poetry, imagining that those words have just been uttered by him, and uttered for you alone, then… The poet never dies. He’s present through his words: it is just that he… talks to us in twig and branch, in garden, park and meadow, in palace and the poorest alley, in castle and tent…” Sometimes the couplets studding The Mirror of Beauty can be opaque in translation (Romanised Urdu footnotes would have been brilliant), but they still imply a world where literature was not quite so set apart from life.

Literature is but one element in the backdrop of this portrait of a woman, her city and times. The scalloped arches, domes and minarets of Delhi’s architecture are also visible in “the city which ceases to remember past sorrows in the shortest possible time”; which proclaims “its undying youth and beauty through the… towering spire of Qutb Sahib… the power and grandeur of Muhammad Tughlaq’s mausoleum… through the mellifluous sounds of the reciters of the Quran or the Primary Declaration of Faith in the ancient mosque attached to the meeting house at the effulgent mausoleum of Nizamuddin Auliya… through the grey blue pigeons which roost at the two-toned dome of Shahjahan’s mosque… through the sudden starting up of the fountain in savan bhadon, the large six-sided tank in the Haveli [the Lal Qila]…” Built into these stone, brick and marble structures is the city’s social fabric. When Wazir first leaves Delhi to live in Jaipur with an Englishman, she recalls “the whispers, the silences, the intimate conversations, the exchange of quick, friendly phrases, the faces showing through narrow windows at the back that provided safe communication between homes, the phrases sweet and musical like the trill of the harmonicon – a small little interior hutch of one’s heart in spite of lives lived together in narrow houses. All that was Delhi…” There are perhaps even a few glimpses of the modern city presaged in its past: even then Dilliwalas are “past masters in fashioning rumours, making and exchanging news, flying every kind of kite in every kind of weather…” And when Wazir worries about “having to return alone after nightfall” from a party on the Pahadi (The Ridge), the contemporary reader can sympathise with her plight.

In language that can be flowery or formal but is always unselfconsciously literary, Faruqi fills in the nuances of Delhi life with a fine brush. Subtleties of fabric and dress are laid out in long passages describing outfits down to their transparency and regional provenance. There are long honorific titles, much capitalised, referring to kings and other important men. The dialogue reads appropriately to its era, with little flourishes like the Nawab of Loharu’s taqia kalam, or pet word, “bhaiwallah”, and Welsh adventurer Fanny Parkes’ spirited memoirs through her one-sided conversation with Wazir. There are passages describing diet and Unani medicine, highly refined codes of hospitality and etiquette, and the various arts – from music to painting to carpet-weaving. The chapters describing a journey through Thuggi territory are gripping, suspenseful, and creepy as hell. This isn’t a subaltern history as such, but by describing in detail the lives of a society’s consumers, Faruqi gestures at the whole world of creative, small-scale production supporting it.

This way of life is threatened by the creeping influences and sometimes violent impositions of British might. Despite its romanticising tendency, The Mirror of Beauty is not a self-Orientalising book, but one attempting to show how an entire world was destroyed from the inside out. “The Firangee mind was by nature haughty, tyrannical and overbearing,” muses Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, Delhi’s “Rhazes and Avicenna”. Mughal heir apparent Mirza Fakhru realises that there was “an alien presence in their midst… impinging not on just economics, trade and money… The Firangees impact changed the values that attached to art, poetry, social conventions… They were increasingly successful in teaching the Hindustani that the values that he loves, the lights which he hopes to lead him into worldly success and Heavenly favour, are wrong, or at best outdated.”

Ultimately the question of whether a decline in Indo-Islamic culture was inevitable “absent the political pressure and military conflicts of those times” is at the heart of The Mirror of Beauty, and it is referenced in the novel’s first book (there are seven). These early chapters, the book’s “frame”, narrate the discovery of a portrait of Wazir Khanam in a London museum by her descendent Wasim Jafar, who shares it with Dr Khalil Asghar Farooqui, a retired opthalmologist. In a description that could apply to Faruqi himself, Farooqui writes of Jafar: “Old pictures, books, documents, manuscripts, were thus milk and bread to him.” It is the English reader’s good fortune that Faruqi decided to share this knowledge (even incorporating primary sources in translation) in such tantalising form. “The people of today are developing the habit of forgetting,” he notes, introducing a chapter related to Madhava Rao Sindhia, “The dust and smoke of modern life are busy obliterating, or at least dimming, many such events hidden in the mazes of family stories and even the histories of nations.”

Recuperating these histories is difficult, but not impossible. Like Jafar, Faruqi rejects “the notion that the past is a foreign country and strangers who visit there cannot comprehend its language… old words can be narrated in new words…” Putting the notion to practice in his translation of a verse by Hafiz, Faruqi describes a beauty so deep and complex that her reflection “sends the mirror to sleep”. We may never see more than a reflection of the past we’ve lost – that fleeting good that, in Goldsmith’s words, “allures from far, yet as I follow, flies”. But the reflection itself is such a beautiful dream that we are lucky to have seen it at all.

The Mirror of Beauty, Hamish Hamilton, ₹699.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 2013.

Published: July 15, 2013