The Mirror of Beauty By Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Penguin, Rs 899
When George Eliot prefixed a chapter in Middlemarch with two seemingly pat lines, “Our deeds still travel with us from afar/ And what we have been makes us what we are”, she was not only taking a position on the long philosophical tussle between free will and fate, but also, even if inadvertently, justifying the modern interest in genealogies. Family histories, by linking the personal and the political, provide a good subject matter for comprehensive, fat novels. In The Mirror of Beauty, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has packed the entire history of a fading era — the last years of the Mughal empire — in the story of the celebrated beauty of the times, Wazir Khanam, who is usually footnoted in history as the mother of the Urdu poet, Dagh Dehlvi.
The plot description in the novel’s title page — “Being the tale of an extraordinary woman in nineteenth-century India who struggled all her life to choose for herself against all odds; narrated as a politico-historical romance”— summarizes the book rather pithily, and it is a feat, given that the book is 952-pages long. The tone of this plot synopsis may remind one of similar-sounding extended titles of 17th or 18th-century English novels, and the echo is perhaps intended, for The Mirror of Beauty also gets back at the English, imperialists and authors, in English, for their attempted hegemony over the Empire and the language. It upholds the opulent tradition of Urdu literature and poetry as a counterpoint to the literature of the West. The original novel by Faruqi, Ka’i Chand the Sar-e-Aasmaan, which became a huge success when it was published a few years ago, was in Urdu. Faruqi has given a further twist to the tale by translating it into English.
As a living woman, Wazir had the guts to reject the advances of an Englishman of no less a stature than the Resident to the State of the Company, William Fraser, who had a penchant for picking up the choicest Indian ladies and boys for his harem. Her act of defiance adds to the atmosphere of growing disgruntlement with the English for their double standards in dealing with the natives. In her meta-life as a stirring painting and as a pricking memory in the heart of her great-grandson, Wasim Jafar, Wazir induces further rebellion: Jafar ‘steals’ her portrait from unlisted papers lying in the British Library, thus acquiring what is rightfully his. The novel gathers around the still life of this portrait that starts moving, as in a magic lantern, when the amateur genealogist, Dr Khalil Asghar Farooqui, is bequeathed the painting by Jafar. Dr Farooqui is also a retired ophthalmologist. His profession is as significant as the fact that he took voluntary retirement from it. The Mirror of Beauty describes images seen not with the physical eye but with the mind’s eye — images that double and redouble with slight variations as the mirrors of memory and imagination are held up to them. Before Wazir takes centrestage in the novel, the lives of her descendants and ancestors are narrated. The deeds of her ancestors travel from afar to make Wazir what she was, and she, in turn, shapes the lives of her descendants as a tic in their unconscious.
All this makes for a cornucopia: the novel has layers stacked upon layers, of history, of art, including the tradition of painting, carpet weaving, literature and poetry. It has libraries and museums of the mind as its sites, and yes, it comes with a recommendation from Pamuk. It is also packed with bric-à-brac in a way that brings A.S. Byatt’s novels to mind: Faruqi spends pages describing objects, both important and unimportant, from, say, Wazir’s portrait, clothes, carpets, a cat’s eye ring on Pundit Nand Kishor’s finger to the thorny shrub, nagphani. The narrative thread tends to get lost in this intricate detailing, but that is a post-modern risk the author must have taken deliberately. As further post-modern touches, there is the framework narrative of the meeting between Wasim Jafar and Dr Farooqui in London in contemporary times, from where the historical account takes off, and the preoccupation with the slipperiness of words. The eccentric Jafar, with his wracking cough, sudden bursts of temper, and life as a bookworm, may also suggest to the reader the mad scholar, Peter Stillman the elder, from The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Jafar’s meeting and conversations with Dr Farooqui constitute one of the liveliest parts of the novel, a quality which gradually wanes as Wazir, who is too canny to be quaintly barmy like Jafar, comes into the spotlight. Sample this exchange between the antiquarian and the genealogist on a walk in Pimlico:
“He [Jafar] turned towards the lane on the left. Suddenly, he paused and said, ‘Do you know the Arabic for ‘cough’?’
‘No, sorry, I’ve but a smattering of Arabic.’
‘Streetwalker,’ he smiled.”
[After this, Jafar is overtaken by a violent bout of coughing.]
“When the cough let up a little, he smiled again and said, ‘Actually it was this damn cough that made me think of it. In old Arabia, streetwalkers would try to attract the attention of a prospective client by gently coughing and clearing their throat. Since this action is called qahabah in Arabic, the word also came to mean a streetwalker.’’’
This fascination with the mutating life of words in different languages, even in the same language, is something that the novel constantly engages itself with. As a poet, Wazir is ever conscious of the equivocating potential of words and keeps on sifting through the conversations with her men to make out what they really mean. Besides, as a woman in a world that does not take kindly to free-spirited, beautiful women who insist on having their own way, Wazir “had taught herself to show what needed to be shown and lock up the rest inside”. The quote about the Arabic word for streetwalker is interesting also because it shows how the scope of words keeps on extending or contracting beyond their primary meaning to create a minefield of misunderstandings and incomprehension.
The chronicle of Wazir can well be described as that of a “pure woman, faithfully presented”, as Hardy glossed his story of Tess d’Urberville, his irony directed not at his heroine but at those Victorians who located purity, or its lack, solely in a woman’s body, so restricting the meaning of the word. Wazir’s belief in, and practice of, serial monogamy with each of the four men in her lives, as well as her devotion to her children do not protect her from getting slotted as a loose woman. At the end of her story, she is still fighting this label, with darkness descending upon her in the time present she cannot escape. It is only in the future — in the retelling of her life by her great-grandson, Jafar, and by the author — that Wazir is redeemed.
The Mirror of Beauty is undoubtedly grand, but one doubts whether it is great. For one, it is tedious, and no matter how keen the sense of wonderment at the richness of Indo-Islamic culture, the serpentine digressions begin to irk after a while. The same feeling applies to the deadly earnestness with which the author treats Wazir. Like Hardy and his Tess, Faruqi too seems to be in love with his heroine, resulting in an attitude that can be best described as uxorious. Wazir’s beauty, of her body and mind, is established more through interminable descriptions and explanations than through her actions.
While Faruqi keeps insisting on Wazir’s struggle “to choose for herself against all odds”, all that she can really be seen to choose are men to her advantage (even the rejection of Fraser is chiefly motivated by the fact that there was no chance he would have made her his chief mistress, let alone wife). After all the protests about Wazir’s integrity, one is tempted to question it out of a perverse desire. This tiring excess is also true of the meticulous detailing, which robs the reader of agency because it leaves no scope for the novel to expand in the readers’ mind. If The Mirror of Beauty is an imaginative work, it is because all the imagining is done by the author, leaving the readers with nothing else to imagine.