'I was sure I wanted to be a writer, I was equally sure I didn't have the talent to be one'
Urdu poet and critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has won rave reviews for the English version of his book on the colourful life of Wazir Khanam, a fiercely independent 19th century woman. He tells Smitha Verma that the book is the result of a lifetime's study of 19th century literature and culture
Illustration: Ashoke Mullick
It's been said of Urdu that if you just scatter some of the letters around blindly, you'll still come up with a couplet or two, and perhaps even a love poem.
So when Shamsur Rahman Faruqi starts talking about a language which is close to his heart, he speaks with passion.
"English has just one word for love while in Urdu you may find at least 15 words," he says. "One can never do enough justice to Urdu while rewriting it into English," he says.
He knows what he is talking about — he has just written a book in the two languages. The Mirror of Beauty, recently published in English by Penguin India, follows the Urdu original Kai Chand the Sar-e-Aasmaan, which was out in 2006. The books are based on the life of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the poet Dagh Dehalvi.
"Everyone wanted me to write about Dagh who was a colourful character but in my mind it was Wazir Khanam whose story needed to be told. Here was a woman from the 19th century who was fiercely independent and eloped with an Englishman and took a series of lovers, including a Nawab and a Mughal prince. This needed to be written about — not painting her as a harlot, but someone who lived life on her own terms," Faruqi stresses.
Faruqi, 78, is modest about being hailed as a leading Urdu critic. He is often compared to T.S. Eliot, which he characteristically plays down. "I don't know if anyone seriously compared me to Eliot. There are similarities, no doubt. For example, both of us wrote criticism as well as poetry," he says. "I was a great admirer of Eliot's poetry and criticism when I was young. His criticism struck me very often as brilliant and sensitive. And I still admire Eliot's poetry."
He pauses to catch his breath after a bout of coughing. A heart condition doesn't allow him to speak at a stretch. "But it's because of my heart ailment that I could write The Mirror of Beauty. The many sleepless nights owing to my ill health were devoted to this book," he says with a faint smile.
It's a humid afternoon in the capital. We are sitting in a small cubicle at his publisher's office. Faruqi, dressed in a blue shirt, a grey linen blazer and trousers with suspenders, looks a bit tired.
But the moment we get back to his book — an idea which was there in his head for 30 years — he revives. "I wrote history by imagining it as fiction. There is only one incident regarding Khanum's life which I have tweaked a bit for lack of details," he explains. "This book is the result of a lifetime of study of 19th century literature and culture. While writing in Urdu, I consulted a few books to check the dates of some historical events. For English, the dictionary was a constant companion."
When The Mirror of Beauty was being written in Urdu, an English print was far from Faruqi's mind. But his publishers insisted on bringing it out in English and Hindi. When an appropriate translator could not be found, Faruqi took it upon himself to write the English version.
"Urdu has its own flavour and it was impossible to retain that in English. The archaic sense couldn't be brought to the English version. I tried transferring the text without compromising significantly or changing the language. For both the languages I have restricted myself to the 19th century lexicon."
The book has won rave reviews from critics and fellow writers. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk calls it "an amazing historical novel... written with heartfelt attention to the details and rituals of a lost culture". The Urdu edition has gone into reprint twice, considered remarkable for the language.
Faruqi's journey into the literary world wasn't a planned one — though he had written his first line of poetry at the age of seven. "There was no strong literary tradition in our family but I somehow had an inkling I might become a writer," he says. A palmist who'd once studied the lines on his hand had predicted that he would be a renowned writer one day. "I was 13 years old then and didn't take him seriously. Just as I was sure that I wanted to be a writer, I was equally sure that I didn't have the talent to be one."
His first work — a short story — was published in 1949 in a small Urdu magazine. It was followed by a short novel in another magazine in 1950. But when it was time to choose a vocation, as suggested by his father, he appeared for the civil services examination and joined the Indian Postal Service in 1960. "It was not a taxing job and it aided my literary ambitions," says Faruqi who now lives a retired life in Allahabad after being posted in different cities.
His childhood and youth were spent in different parts of Uttar Pradesh. He lived in Azamgarh till 1948 and later moved to Gorakhpur. He went on to do his postgraduation in English from the University of Allahabad. "I was passionately interested in history but not the way it was taught in school. It seemed to ignore the people and concentrate on the rulers," he says.
It was while in college that Faruqi closely encountered the world of Urdu criticism. "I had the poorest opinion of Urdu critics. I found them arrogant and argumentative and I realised that I needed to write criticism to show people what it was all about," he says, taking a sip of his green tea and leaning back on his chair.
Faruqi had to face his share of rejections and allegations too. In the early 1960s, his writings were often rejected for his style was thought to be too "volatile". So he started an Urdu magazine called Shabkhoon in 1966. "That was the turning point in my literary career. Till then whatever I wrote was rejected as it went against the literary tide. The magazine was financially supported by my late wife. It gave me a free hand to do whatever I wanted to do. Since the magazine encouraged dissent it became an instant hit."
His focus on Urdu literary criticism didn't stop him from writing poetry and short stories. "I would like to think of myself as a fiction writer and also put my best into criticism. No critic can live on his criticism as it will soon get dated because every generation wants a re-interpretation (of literature). Criticism — however influential — isn't a testing genre in the lifetime of a writer. Perhaps my fiction will survive despite groundbreaking criticisms," says the recipient of numerous awards, including the Saraswati Samman which was conferred on him for She'r-e Shor-Angez, a four-volume study of the 18th century poet, Mir Taqi Mir.
We have to wrap up now, but there is a question still to be asked. Faruqi urges me to email him, and promises to send a reply. I ask him about an incident a decade ago when Faruqi was accused of plagiarism in his book Urdu Ka Ibtidai Zamana.
He writes back to me. "There was an allegation, clearly motivated, that I had lifted some ideas from Urdu litterateur Abu Muhammad Sahar, a person whom I knew and greatly respected. Sahar anticipates some of the points made by me in my work and unfortunately his text came to my notice only after I had prepared my final draft. I made my position clear in the first Indian Urdu edition of my book."
He isn't happy that I have broached this topic. "I am sad to see you bringing this up. I am not sure it was in the best taste. I have written very nearly 50,000 pages of Urdu and English in more than 50 years of my writing life, a life which has not ended yet. A plagiarist couldn't survive that long... Why are there no allegations of plagiarism about any other text written by me before, or after this book," he argues.
For now the focus is on The Mirror of Beauty where the past has been revisited for the present. And then there are some pasts which need no revisits.