A literary prodigy

January 10, 2021

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s enormous impact on the literary and cultural history of Urdu literature shall be remembered for generations to come

(حریفِ مۓ مرد افگنِ عشق)

Harīf-i ma’e mard afgan-i ishq


he relationship between the literary word and its myriad meanings is an eternal puzzle. Text, context, author, intention, reader, preconceived conceptual frameworks - literary meanings revolve around the complex relationship between these elements. This is an endless but a happy struggle and throughout his life, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (1935–2020) held our hands and guided us through it.

Faruqi Sahib taught us how we could uncover the layers of the meanings in a literary text and celebrate the pleasure of the process. He made us feel the joy of exploring the beauty behind the veil – the bass voice of the orchestra. It was the core issue and challenge behind all his literary expeditions: to explore any and all shades of meanings in a text.

Faruqi Sahib, with his prodigious talent and a sibylline vision, enlightened the world of Urdu literature throughout his passionate and influential literary career, spanning almost six decades. He maneuvered in the field of literature on almost all fronts; as a poet, novelist, linguist, critic, theorist, researcher, literary historiographer, translator and the editor of a literary periodical. Being a prolific writer, he authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles in both Urdu and English. Apart from having a thorough command over English and Urdu, he was well-versed in Persian and Arabic. The world of Urdu literature has seldom seen someone of Faruqi Sahib’s stature; someone as well-trained and secure in his craft as he was.

While he turned into gold whatever he touched, his fiction and literary criticism are the brightest and most prominent aspects of his literary endeavours. His epoch-making novel Ka’i Chānd thay Sar-i Āsamāñ is considered one of the most significant milestones of the Urdu novel. It deals with the ebb and flow of the life of Vazīr Begum, mother of the renowned Urdu poet Dāgh, in the backdrop of the 19th century Indian milieu. The tragic tone of the narrative emerges from the advent of the colonial regime and destruction of the Mughal glory. It did not signify a shift in the political power only; a shift in the worldview of Indian Muslims followed.

The 19th century witnessed the transition of Indian society from a Muslim-dominated culture to a West-driven modernity. This transitional phase caused a sense of loss and held a spark of opportunity for Indian Muslims. Faruqi fictionalised the historical events and historicised the fictional characters. He rubbed the hard edges of history and fiction and through an amalgamation of both created a surrealistic reality.

Characterisation and representation of the colours and odours of 19th century India are the points where Faruqi’s art of fiction-writing touches its peak. The central figure of the novel, Vazīr Begum, does not qualify to represent the 19th Century Indian Muslim woman as such. However, with all the historical characters around her, including Mirza Ghālib, Simon Fraser, Navāb Shamuddin Ahmad Khan, Mirza Fakhrū, and Dāgh Dehlavi, she has been presented as the embodiment of the soul of an India that has been crushed, thwarted, suppressed and disappointed but cannot be broken down. Fingers may be pointed at her character for one reason or another, but no one can deny Faruqi’s exceptionally precise skill in depicting the character in all her glory. Vazir Begum has a fantasy-like quality about her and she seems to have become an immortal character in Urdu fiction. All the male characters, including the real and great poets, navābs, and even the Mughal prince seem subdued and dependent on her for their identity. She is an ordinary, empty-handed but beautiful, empowered, and tactful woman who knows how to take her share of life from a male-dominated society.

Apart from the main characters of the novel, Faruqi presents some memorable side characters that depict the lost spirit of the Indian Muslim culture prevailing in the sub-continent for the previous three centuries. In particular, Banī Thanī and the carpet weaver Muhammad Yahya leave ineffaceable marks on the readers’ minds. Faruqi’s skill in drawing these extraordinary characters to the minutest details is impeccable. Another significant aspect of the narrative is the use of the historically apt language. Faruqi knows well how to exploit the full potential of the words and has exhibited his linguistic skill to its full in the novel. Another of his novels, Qabz-i Zamān, and a collection of his short stories Savār aur Dūsare Afsāne, also contribute to Urdu fiction by bringing back the 18th century social setting to life. Some of his short stories are weaved around the significant literary figures of Urdu poetry, including Mir Taqi Mir, Mushafi and Ghalib.

As a storyteller, Faruqi kept an element of awe and mystery in his narrative alive at all times. The technique is similar to that used by Nayyar Masud, who is known for developing his story in a real setting. During the course of action, however, a mysterious or inexplicable element enters the narration and takes it to a misty, timeless zone. One may call it a sort of magic-realism that has its own implications. Faruqi’s short story, Lāhore kā aik Wāqi‘a, is an example of this genre. One cannot confine it to nostalgia as it goes beyond reminiscence and creates new experiences by reliving or re-writing the past.

In his more theoretical and hermeneutical works, Faruqi Sahib brought the past and present together and gave his contemporary writers and critics the courage and the confidence to take pride in their own tradition of literature and art. Influenced by Muhammad Hasan Askari, he insisted on not looking at our literature through Western models. Rather, he encouraged writers to apply the canons of classical literature to evaluate and analyse the literariness of the present literature. He believed that literature was a product of long-lived traditions and historical phenomena. One cannot sever it from its roots and still expect it to be a true representative of one’s soul and spirit. He deviated from the progressive view by proclaiming that literature was a worthy cause in and of itself; it need not a tool for any other purpose.

Faruqi Sahib’s works have influenced three generations of Urdu writers and readers and his impact on the literary and cultural history of Urdu marks a milestone in the history of Urdu literature.

The writer is an academic, creative writer, poet and critic. Her latest book is Ragni ki Khoj Mein. 

A literary prodigy