Tag Archives: Urdu

Saqi, April 1946

One of the most interesting covers I came upon while browsing through the British Library’s Endangered Archives project is the April 1946 issue of Saqi. The issue is the Urdu journal’s special humour edition. The illustration is signed by Sobha Singh, the artist best known for his paintings of Sikh gurus (several Saqi covers are signed by him).

Saqi April 1946. From the Endangered Archives Project, British Library

Saqi April 1946. From the Endangered Archives Project, British Library

On the top left are the opening lines of “Wataniyat” (Patriotism), a poem by Allama Iqbal published in the 1924 collection Bang-e-Dara (The Call of the Bell). They are found on a number of the Saqi covers. For some reason, however, the last few words are changed from (what I think is) the original poem (online, with a rough translation here), from the antonymous “lutf-o-sitam” to the synonymous “lutf-o-karam”. (Hover over for definitions.)

اسدورميں مے اور ہے جام اور ہے جم اور

ساقي نے بنا کي روشِ لطف وکرم/ستماور

Is daur mein mai aur hai, jaam aur hai, jam aur,
Saqi ne bina kii rawish-e-lutf-o-karam/sitam aur.

This round, the wine is not wine, the cup not a cup, the crowd more than a crowd.
The Saqi has set in motion new modes of pleasure and generosity/oppression.

All definitions from Platts Dictionary.

Published: August 15, 2015

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter III

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Published: December 4, 2014

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter IV

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Published: December 4, 2014

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter I

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Published: December 4, 2014

Protected: Juz Qais (جُزقیس) (जुज़ क़ैस)

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Published: November 30, 2014

Protected: Jarahat tohfa (جراہت تُحفہ)

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Published: November 30, 2014

Protected: Beva (بیوہ) (बेवा) (Widow) – Chapter II

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Published: July 5, 2014

Rain words

Compiled from John T Platt’s Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and English.

āb-i-bārān (m) Rain-water.
abr-i-āẕur (m) A cloud without rain.
abr-i-ʻālamgīr (m) Rain clouds which cover a large extent of country.
abr-i-qibla (m) Clouds which come from the direction of the qibla; clouds heavily charged with rain.
idrār (m) Lit. ‘Causing milk, urine, &c. to flow copiously’; involuntary or copious discharge of urine, diabetes; hard rain; munificence.
akāl vr̤ishṭi (f) Untimely rain.
ālā (adj; f.-ī), Wet, damp moist, saturated (especially with rain).
amī (f) Water of life, nectar; water, rain.
āhar (m) Reservoir for collecting rain-water for irrigation, pond;—pile of cakes of cowdung in a furnace, fuel made of cowdung.
ايت ईति īti (f) Any calamity of the season (as drought, excessive rain, noxious insects, &c.).
باران bārān (m) Rain; rainy season.
باراني bārānī (adj) Depending or rain; (f) Land depending on rain, unirrigated land (in contradistinction to ćāhī); a woollen coat or cloak to protect one from the rain, overcoat, water-proof…
bārānī khet  (m) A field the irrigation of which is dependent on rain.
بارش bārish (f) Rain.
بارندگي bārandagī (f) Rain, raining.
بارنده bāranda (adj & m) Raining;—that which rains or showers.
برس बरस baras(m) Year;—raining, rain.
برسات बरसात barsāt (f) Rainy season, the rains (the third season, of the six, from the fifteenth of Ásārh to the fifteenth of Bhādoṅ); rain (in general).
برساتي बरसाती barsātī (adj) Relating to rain, rainy; belonging to the rainy season;—s.f. What is sown or produced in the rains; clothing or covering for the rainy season, or against rain; water-proof; apron of a carriage; portico;—name of a disorder in horses, the farcy (which usually breaks out in the rainy season).
برسانا बरसाना barsānā (caus. of barasnā) (vt) To cause to rain; to shower down, pour down; to scatter, sprinkle; to winnow.
برساو बरसाऊ barsāʼū (adj) Raining; pertaining to rain, pluvious, rainy; ready to rain, threatening rain.
برستا बरस्ता barastā (m) Rain.
برسن बरसन barsan,  برسنا बरसना barasnā or बरिसना barisnā (m) Raining; rain:
barsan-hār (adj) Raining; rainy; about to rain, threatening rain
برسنا बरसना barasnā (vn) To rain, be wet; to fall like rain, fall in showers, be poured or showered down; to be showered, shed, scattered; to shed or cast forth beams (of light), to sparkle, glow; to burst, discharge (as a boil); to be winnowed, be sifted (as grain).
برش बर्ष barsh, बरष barash (m) Rain.
barsh- (or barash-) kāl (m) The rainy season.
barsh- (or barash-) kālī (adj) Pertaining to the rains, of the rainy.
برشا बर्षा barshā (f) Rain; the rainy season.
barshā-bindu (m) Rain-drop.
barshā-r̤itu, barshā-r̤itu kāl (m) The rainy season.
بشٿي बिष्टी bishṭī (f) Rain.
بوچهار बौछार baućhār, بوچهاڙ बौछाड़ baućhāṛ (m) Wind and rain, driving rain, heavy shower of rain; drift, spray: baućhāṛ karnā, To shower, pelt down (rain); to raise a spray.
بوند बूंद būṅd (f) Drop; drop of rain.
بوندا बूंदा būṅdā (m) A large drop.
būṅdā-tāi dī (f) Small and interrupted dropping of rain; drizzle; distillation, filtration.
بوندي बूंदी būṅdī (dim. of būṅdā), (f) Small drop; small rain, rain-drops; droppings; a kind of sweetmeat like drops; comfits.
بهرن भरण bharan (f) Heavy shower of rain.
bīr-bahuṭṭī, bīr-bahūṭī, bīr-bahoṭī (f) The red-velvet insect, the scarlet or lady-fly, Buccella carniola (commonly called the “rain-insect,” as it makes its appearance when the first rains have fallen: it is covered with a downy exterior resembling velvet, and of a scarlet colour:—syn. indra-badhu).
پانی पानी pānī (m) Water (syn. jal); rain-water, rain.
pānī paṛnā (vn) To rain.
پاوس पावस pāwas, पाऊस pāʼūs, पाउस pāʼus (m) The rainy season; rain.
paṭ-par, paṭ-paṛ (adj & m) Level, flat; bare of trees, &c.; a bare plain, a desert waste; moist land caked by sunshine after rain or a flood.
paṭ-ā-paṭ, paṭ-paṭ (m) Continuous sound of beating, or of falling rain, &c.
پٿيرا पटेरा paṭerā  (m) The plant Cyperus hexastachyus communis; the reed or flag Cyperus papyrus; a long coarse grass (used as fodder for elephants, and made into mats, and rain-cloaks or hoods for the poorer classes).
پربرشن प्रबर्पण pra-barshaṇ (m) Raining, causing to rain.
پرجنيه पर्जन्य parjanya (m) A rain-cloud, thunder-cloud; rain; the god of rain.
پرچها पर्छा parćhā, pharćhā (part) Cleared up (as the sky after rain).
پسلا पसला pasalā, paslā A shower, torrent of rain.
pan-badrā (m) Rain and sunshine.
pan-kāl, paniyā-kāl (m) Scarcity of water, drought;—famine caused by excess of rain.
pan-mār (m) Soil submerged by floods and rendered unfit for cultivation; low lands where water lodges; a crop ruined through excess of rain.
پهڙپهڙ फड़फड़ phaṛphaṛ (f) Flapping (of wings); fluttering (of a flag); crackling (of stiff paper); pattering (of rain, &c.); rattling (of musketry), &c.
پهڙپهڙانا फड़फड़ाना phaṛphaṛānā (vn) To shake, shiver, to move with convulsive motion, to struggle, to be agitated; to flap (the wings), to flutter, to wave, to twinkle; to crackle (as stiff paper, &c.); to patter (as rain); to rattle (as musketry).
پهوار फुवार phuwār, फुआर phuʼār, پهونوار फूंवार phūṇwār (f) Small fine rain, drizzle; mist, fog; small spot or drop:—phuʼār paṛnā, (vn) Small drops of rain to fall; to drizzle
پهونہي फूंही phūṅhī, پهونئي फूंई phūṅʼī (f) Small rain, drizzle.
paimāna-é-bārish (m) A rain-gauge.
ترشح tarashshǒḥ (m) Sweating, exuding, exudation; dropping, dripping, distilling; sprinkling, small rain, drizzle;—adj. Manifest, apparent:—tarashshǒḥ honā, v.n. To drizzle (=phuʼiyāṅ paṛnā);—to be apparent, to appear, seem.
ترنت तरन्त tarant (m) The ocean; a heavy shower, a torrent of rain; a fog.
taṛāke-kā (adj, f. ī) Pelting (as rain); violent (as a storm); intense (as cold, &c.); noisy, bustling, brisk (as a business); loud, gaudy; brilliant, splendid, magnificent.
تشار तुषार tushār (adj & m) Cold, frigid, frosty; dewy;—cold, frost, ice, snow, hail; mist, dew, thin rain, fog, blight;—a crop that ripens in the cold season.
ٿپ टप ṭap (m) Covering, cover, the upper part or fly (of a tent); the hood (of a carriage, &c.); sound of dropping (as of rain, &c.); dropping, patter, drop (of rain, &c.).
ṭap-ā-ṭap, ṭap-ṭap (adv) With a sound like that of a dropping liquid; drop-drop, patter-patter; in continuous drops, in a shower (as rain, tears, bullets, &c.); one after another, continuously, successively.
ٿپکا टपका ṭapkā (m) Continuous dropping, dripping; a drop (of rain, &c., cf. ṭipkā); fruit falling when ripe (particularly mangoes), a windfall
ṭapkā-ṭapkī (f) Continuous dropping, dripping, trickle; a continuous dropping or falling off (as of fruit, or customers, or of men or animals under epidemic or murrain)
ٿمٿم टिमटिम ṭim-ṭim (m) Soft or gentle rain, drizzle; a soft sound; a sound.
ٿوٿنا टूटना ṭūṭnā to fall in torrents (as rain), be poured forth, be rained or showered copiously.
ṭūṭ-ke girnā (vn) To fall in torrents (as rain, &c.)
جوهڙ जूहड़ jūhaṛ, जोहड़ johaṛ (m) A pit or tank (not made of masonry) in which rain-water, &c. collects; a pond, inundated land.
جهارا झारा jhārā (m) A kind of sieve; Drizzling rain, drizzle (syn. jhaṛī; jhīsī).
جهاڙ झाड़ jhāṛ (f) Sweeping, cleaning, &c. (see jhāṛ-nā); a purge; a shower, continuous and heavy rain, downpour.
jhāṛ bāṅdhnā (vn) To shower, to pour down, to rain without ceasing.
جهالا झाला jhālā (cf. jhārā), s.m. Local rain, rain which falls on one spot and not on another close to it.
جهپاس झपास jhapās (f) A sharp shower; driving rain (see jhaṭās)
جهپٿا झपट्टा jhapaṭṭā vehemence, violence, fury (as of fever, wind, rain, or fire)
جهٿاس झटास jhaṭās (f) Squall, driving rain; gust
جهجها झज्झा jhajjhā, झझा jhajhā (f) A violent gust with rain, a squall, &c.; see jhanjhā.
جهڙ झड़ jhaṛ (f) A falling, fall (of leaves, &c., e.g. pat-jhaṛ); a shower, downpour, heavy or continuous rain jhaṛ-ā-jhaṛ, adv. In showers; heavily, incessantly, continuously (raining):—jhaṛ-batās, s.f. A storm of wind and rain, a squall.
جهڙي झड़ी jhaṛī (f) Continued rain, showers; pickings, perquisites:—jhaṛī lagnā, v.n. To rain continually.
جهکورا झकोरा jhakorā झिकोरा jhikorā (m) Waving, shaking, agitation (of a tree, &c., by the wind): gust, blast (of wind), current (of air); a squall, a heavy shower, driving rain; a large wave; a shove, push, impulse, drive.
جهکورنا झकोरना jhakornā (vt) To shake, to put in motion; to drive or beat (as wind or rain); cf. jhakolnā.
جهماکا झमाका jhamākā (m) Beating rain, a heavy shower; crash (as of breaking glass, &c.);—quickness, celerity, haste, dash, &c. (=jhapākā, q.v.).
جهم جهم झमझम jham-jham (m & adv) The sound of heavy rain; dashing, beating (of rain), steady downpour;—heavily and continuously (raining).
جهنجها झञ्झा jhanjhā (f) Wind, wind and heavy rain, a squall, gale, hurricane;—a clang or sharp clanking sound, jingling, rattling:—jhanjhānil (jhanjhā+anil), s.m. Violent wind and rain, a high wind in the rainy season, a typhoon, or the sort of tempest frequent during the south-west monsoon:—jhanjhā-vāt, s.m. Wind with rain, a storm, squall.
جهوسا झूसा jhūsā (m) Fine rain, misle, drizzle (=jhīsī).
جهوسي झूसी jhūsī (f) Fine rain, misle, drizzle (=jhīsī).
جهيسي झीसी jhīsī (f) Mist-like rain, misle, drizzle, shower.
چاتك चातक ćātak (m) The pied cuckoo, Cuculus melanoleucus (syn. papīhā, living, according to the legend, only upon rain-drops).
چمربرهے चमर बर्हे ćamar-barhe (lit. ‘That which increases the ćamar or ćambal,’ q.v.), s.m. pl. (dialec.), The rain which falls about twelve days after the end of the cold season, winter rains.
چوکا चोका ćokā (adj) (prov.)=ćokhā, q.v.:—ćokā-bāg, s.m. Seed sown immediately after a fall of rain.
چهاج छाज ćhāj ćhājoṅ meṅh barasnā or paṛnā, Rain to fall in torrents.
چهمچهم छमछम ćham-ćham (f) Sound of heavy rain; tinkle, jingle (of small bells, anklets, &c.), tinkle-tinkle.
چهمچمانا छमछमाना ćhamćhamānā (v) To sound (as falling rain); to tinkle, jingle.
چهينٿا छींटा ćhīṅṭā (m) Shot, spot, splash, &c. (=ćhīṅṭ); a sprinkle, a slight shower (of rain);
دڙيڙا दड़ेड़ा daṛeṛā (m) Impetuosity, violent attack; hard or pelting rain.
دهار धार dhār (m) lit. ‘Supporting, support’; a hollow tree inserted in the mouth of a well (in the Tarāʼī) to keep it from falling in;—a sudden shower, a sprinkling of rain;—end
دهارا धारा dhārā (f) A line of descending fluid, a stream, current (of water, or of a river, &c.), a channel, a water-course; a torrent; a flood; a hard shower (of rain)
dhārāsār (m) A heavy shower; a large drop (of rain)
دهوندهوکار धूंधूकार dhūṅdhū-kārs.دهوندهونکار धूंधूंकार dhūṅ-dhūṅ-kār (m) Heavy rain obscuring the whole heaven; gloomy or cloudy weather, clouds; gloominess, cloudiness, obscurity; desolateness; vaporization; evaporation; waste;—name of a game;—adv Heavily (raining, so as to obscure the sky).
رحمت raḥmat (for A. رحمة, inf. n. of رحم ‘to have mercy’) (f) Mercy, compassion, pity (=raḥm); divine mercy or favour, pardon, forgiveness; a gift of the divine mercy, a blessing from on high; rain
رم جهم रिम झिम rim-jhim (onomat.), adv. With a pattering sound, patter-patter (as rain).
sāwan-bhādoṅ, (m) Sunshine and rain
sāwan-kī jhaṛī (f)  The constant showers of Sāwan
سبل sabal (m) Falling rain (before it reaches the ground)
سرکي सिरकी sirkī s.f. Reed-grass, the upper joint of Saccharum procerum (see sarkanḍā); a inat made of this reed (used as a covering to keep off rain).
سناٿا सन्नाटा sannāṭā (m) Loud or violent sound, rumbling noise, clatter (made by wind and rain or hail, &c. at a distance), howling (of the wind), roaring, roar (of waves, or a conflagration, &c.); violent blast or gust; a dashing or driving (of rain, &c.); ringing, whizzing, whiz (of bullets, &c.)
سوات स्वात swāt swāt-būṅd or swāt (f) A drop of rain which, falling into a shell when the moon is in the fifteenth lunar mansion, becomes (according to popular belief) a pearl
sūkhe dhānoṅ pānī paṛnā  lit. ‘Rain to fall on dry rice-fields’; rain to fall opportunely; to get new life, to be revived
سيکر सीकर sīkar (m) Fine rain, drizzle
شيکر शीकर śīkar (m) Fine rain, drizzle; rain driven by wind; spray; mist; a drop of rain or water
طل t̤all (inf. n. of طلّ ‘to rain small rain,’ &c.), (f) Drizzle; dew; mist.
طوفان t̤ūfān (v.n. fr. طوف ‘to surround, go round, envelop,’ &c.), (m) A violent storm of wind and rain, a tempest, typhoon; a flood, deluge, inundation; the universal deluge; a flood or torrent (of obloquy, &c.); t̤ūfān-t̤arāzī, s.f. Deluge-making
غدير g̠adīr (v.n. fr. غدر; see g̠adr) (adj) Unfaithful, treacherous, deceitful, not to be trusted;—(f) A pool of water left by a torrent (and liable to fail); a place in which rain-water stagnates.
faiẓ baḵẖsh (adj) Bestowing favours or bounties, bountiful, beneficent, &c.; fertilizing (rain, &c.)
قطر qat̤r (m) Dropping (of water); falling in drops;—drops; rain.
kaṛāhī ćāṭnā To lick the pot (it is a superstition among Indian women that licking the pot brings about the ill-luck of a fall of rain on the wedding procession of the person given to this habit; hence, on the occurrence of such a contretemps the women abuse the bridegroom for having licked the pot)
kanyā-vāṇī (f) Rain that falls when the sun is in Virgo, September rain.
کهار खार khār (m) Rough or rugged ground; ground cut up by rain
کهوکهي खूखी khūkhī (f) A small insect that appears in wheat and barley after heavy rain and produces a red blight.
کهوئی खोई khoʼī (f) A hood-form covering of leaves, &c. to shade plantlets, &c.); a kind of hood (worn as a protection against rain); clothes folded up and put on the head (as a defence against rain, &c.).
gadhā-gadhī-kā biyāh (m) ‘Ass’s wedding,’ symbolized by sunshine and rain (cf. the English ‘fox’s wedding’)
ganda-bahār (f) Rain which falls in the cold weather
گولا गोला golā-dhār barasnā (vn) To rain a pelting rain, to rain in torrents
گهار घार ghār (m) Land worn away by running water; a ravine; clay soil in low situations (where rain-water lies for a time).
گهونگي घूंगी ghūṅgī, or घोंगी ghoṅgī (f) The tying the end of a blanket in a knot and so placing it on the head as a protection against rain; a hooded cloak or covering;—a cloth folded up and put on the head (as a defence against the rain);
لباده labāda (m) A cloak for rain; a quilted cloak; wrapper; great-coat; pelisse.
مزروع mazrūʻ (part) Sown; tilled, cultivated; under cultivation;—(m) A sown field;—seed-produce that is watered by the rain.
مسل मुसल musal long, heavy, wooden pestle used in clearing rice from the husk musal-dhār, (m) ‘The bearer of the club,’ an epithet of Baladev;—ʻclub-stream,’ very heavy rain:—musal-dhār barasnā, To rain very heavily. mūslā-dhār, s.m. ‘Club-stream’; heavy, or pelting, rain;—mūslā-dhār barasnā, To rain very heavily, or in torrents
مطير mat̤īr (vn. fr. مطر ‘to descend with rapidity;—to rain,’ &c.), (adj) Raining; dropping; rained on.
موچا मोचा moćā crops beaten down by wind and rain.
مہاوٿ महावट mahāwaṭ = H مہاوٿهہ महावठ mahāwaṭh (m) Rain which falls in the month of Māgh (Jan.-Feb.), winter-rain.
ميگهہ मेघ megha, vulg. megh (m) A cloud;—rain (i.q. meṅh);—name of a rāg or musical mode, appropriated to the rainy season, and last watch of the night before the dawn of day (said to have proceeded from the head of Brahmā, or from the sky);
megh-rāg (m) The musical scale megh, q.v. (it is supposed capable of bringing down rain from heaven):—megh-rūpī, adj. In the form of clouds; cloud-like; resounding, or thunder-ing; black and threatening:—megh-kāl, s.m. ‘Cloud-time’; the rainy season, the rains
megh-nād (m) ‘Cloud-noise,’ rumbling or thundering of clouds; sound of rain; thunder;—an epithet of Varuṇ, and of a son of his, and of a son of Rāvaṇ
مينہہ मेंह meṅh, and (corr.) मींह mīṅh (m) Rain; a shower:—meṅh ānā, v.n. Rain to come, or to threaten:—meṅh barasnā, or meṅh paṛnā, v.n. Rain to fall; to rain:—meṅh ćhūṭnā, v.n. To rain hard.
نمچی नमुचि na-mući and H. नमुची na-mućī, (m) Name of a demon slain by Indra and the Aśvins (lit. ‘not loosing the heavenly waters,’ i.e. confining the clouds and preventing the flow of rain):—na-mući-sūdan, s.m. ‘The destroyer of Namući,’ an epithet of Indra.
naw-jal, or nau-jal (m) The rain of the rainy season
نوڐ निविड niviḍ (adj) Without spaces or interstices; close, contiguous; thick, gross, dense, impervious (as a forest, or darkness, &c.);—coarse;—heavy, hard (as rain, &c.); sound (sleep)
نيسان naisān (m) Name of the seventh Syrian month (corresponding to the Persian Farwardīn, and the Hindī Baisākh, April-May):—abr-ě-naisān, or abr-ě-naisānī, s.m. ‘The vernal cloud,’ spring showers;—the rain which falls while the moon is in the mansion svāti (and which is beheved to produce pearls if it fall into shells, and venom if it drop into the mouth of serpents;—cf. swāt-būṅd).
وپريت विपरीत viparīt (f) Adverse circumstances; mischief; rain.
ورش वर्ष varsha, vulg. varsh, and H. वरष warash or warsh (m) Rain, raining; a shower of rain; sprinkling, effusion;—the rainy season;—a cloud;—a year (see the pop. form baras)
varshāvasān (m) ‘The close of the rains,’ the autumnal season, autumn:—varshāyut (˚sha+ay˚)
ورشا वर्षा varshā (f.) rain, a shower:—varshā-r̤itu, or varshā-kāl, s.m. The season of the rains:—varshā-vindu, s.m. A drop of rain, rain-drop.
ورشٿ वृष्टि vr̤ishṭi (f) Rain; a shower:—vr̤ishṭi-kāl, s.m. The rainy season (syn. barsāt).
ورشن वर्षण varshaṇ, (m) The falling of rain, raining; rain.


Published: May 25, 2014

Naqsh faryaadi (نقش فریادی) (नक़्श फ़रयादी))

Ghalib – I ♦


Against which artwork’s colour does the copy complain?
For each picture’s face is a paper covering, plain.

Of the hard soul’s digging — loneliness — ask not!
Like Farhad, carving canals for cream through rough terrain.

Witness for yourself passion’s unfettered zeal:
The scimitar blade drawn out, free from scabbard’s restraint.

Intellect: cast your nets of attention as wide as you will,
Meaning is phoenix-like in my discourse’s domain.

I, Ghalib, may be captured, but in captivity, aflame;
I’ve seen that nought but singed locks are the links of my chains.

نقش فریادی ہےکس کی شوخئ تحریر کا

کاغذی ہے پیرہن ہر پیکرِ تصویرکا


کاوکاوِ سخت جانی ہائے تنہائ۔ نہ پُوچھ

صبح کرنا شام کا۔ لانا ہجُوئےشیرکا


جذبۂ بےاختیارِ شوق دیکھا چاہیے

سینئہ شمشیر سے باہر ہے۔ دم شمشیر کا


آگہی۔ دامِ شنیدن جس قدر چاہے بچھائے

مُدّعا عنقا ہے۔ اپنے علَمِ تقریرکا


بس کہ ہوں غالؔب اسیریمیں بھی آتش زیرِپا

مُوئے آتش دیرہ ہے حلقہ میری زنجیر کا

Definitions from Platts’ dictionary.
Ghazal I on Frances Pritchett’s Ghalib page.

Published: December 23, 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