Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: An illuminating life

Print edition : January 29, 2021

Shamsur RAhman Faruqi during a discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 22, 2015. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (1935-2020) married Western perception to Urdu sensibilities, enriching the world of literature and criticism with his unique perspective.

AS he battled COVID-19 and subsequently a fungal infection, the illustrious writer, poet and translator Shamsur Rahman Faruqi longed to be in his familiar surroundings, in the warmth of his home in Allahabad, one that he had so meticulously built. It was a home of birds and flowers, dogs and cats, and lots of poetry and songs—far removed from the cold bedsheets and desensitised gloves of his hospital bed in New Delhi.

Faruqi, whose writings gave life to letters and, in turn, shaped the lives of an entire generation of Urdu lovers, was granted his last wish. He was taken by an air ambulance to his own home. Half an hour later, he lapsed into the waiting arms of death. His daughter, Mehr Afshan, said on Twitter: “We reached Allahabad and father transitioned peacefully.” His physical persona was laid to rest beside his wife in his beloved Allahabad.

But Faruqi is destined to live on through his poetry, literary criticism, short stories, and epic novel Ka’i Chand Thhe Sar-e-Asman (translated into English as The Mirror of Beauty), which transcended the limits of possibilities in Urdu literature. He was a theorist who married Western perception to Urdu and Persian sensibilities.

Even as he repeatedly wrote about the Muslim identity, his stance against the beard and the hijab meant that he was never likely to be much loved by Muslim clerics. But that was just collateral loss for Faruqi, who coveted nothing more than an abiding relationship with letters and words, poetry and novels, and literary criticism and translations.

Blessed with love

If his death was a silent slide into the darkness of night, his life was quite the opposite. Named after a surah from the Quran, he was blessed with love, not that lustful synonym but that tender emotion unique to kind hearts. He formed intimate bonds with his cats, dogs and birds. That he created history along the way with his literary criticism, perception and expression was merely incidental. He loved nothing more than his morning cup of tea with his spouse, and after her demise in 2007, with his daughters, one of whom, Mehr Afshan Farooqi, is following in his footsteps with her writings on Urdu nazms and ghazals and, of course, Ghalib.

Faruqi raised his daughters with the poetry of Mir and Ghalib. He shared with them the angst of Dagh and the longing of Wazir Khanum. And, when the mood overtook him, with the crests and troughs of Shakespeare. Never was a word wasted, seldom did an emotion die without an appropriate expression. An emotion not worthy of expression never struck his heart or left his pen.

Shamsur, or ‘sun’ in Urdu, was many things to many people; he illumined the lives of all who came in touch with him.

To his wife, he was a loving husband who retained a little silver tray she once bought for him, in which he kept his medicines. To his daughters, he was a sounding board, a patient listener who helped cut through the clutter in initial writing attempts.

To editors of literary journals he was a critic unwilling to applaud mediocrity. He himself published Shabkhoon, a literary journal he started in 1966, which came to be regarded as the precursor of modernity. This journal guided more than a generation of Urdu writers. He sought not the limelight—preferring to write many short stories under pseudonyms—but the comfort of expressing his thoughts through his pen and finding eager readers for the same. To Urdu literature aficionados, he was that quintessential writer who made the best of Mir, Dagh and Ghalib accessible.

For the English-speaking multitudes, he was that rarest of rare beings who not only bridged the divide between Urdu and English but also helped them take a peek into 19th century literature. For the common man, nostalgia can be a nice indulgence, a peep into the past for an emotional caress, but for Faruqi the past was dissected for its pockmarks, wounds and unexpressed angst.

Epic novel

This attempt to bring alive the past came together beautifully in Ka’i Chand Thhe Sar-e-Aasman. The novel talked of the life of Wazir Khanum, mother of the unforgettable Urdu poet Dagh. Set in 19th century Delhi, it was shortlisted for the prestigious DSC Prize for Literature. Importantly, it introduced English readers to the world of Urdu speakers, their unique wit, understatements, and brevity, and the politics of the era, the feeling of siege within. It remains his signature work, although the 2014 book The Sun That Rose from the Earth comes close. Here, Faruqi shed light on the Urdu literary culture of the centuries gone by, with a special focus on Delhi and Lucknow; the two cities often exchanged couplets on each other’s literary worth. Unsurprisingly, Mir, a subject of intense study in Faruqi’s Sher-e-Shor Angrez, once said of Delhi: “Dilli ke na kooche thhe, aurake musavir thhe, jo shakl nazar aayi tasveer nazar aayi” (Delhi’s streets were not alleys but parchment of a painting, Every face that appeared seemed a masterpiece). Faruqi created a masterpiece in which he delved deep into the lives of some of the best known and lesser-known names of Urdu literature.

The voluminous book was a master craftsman’s work of patience; it called upon the reader for similar patience, similar subtleties. And then it rewarded him with undistilled pleasure. When one read Faruqi, all that stood between the author’s pen and the reader’s heart was the interpretation. Like Oscar Wilde, he often wrote in a way that left him open to myriad interpretations. Faruqi never complained. He believed in writing a story or a novel and leaving it to his readers to take away what they wanted.

Dastangoi revival

Faruqi also revived the forgotten art of dastangoi, dressing up the 19th century storytelling art form for 21st century society. Along with his nephew Mahmood Farooqi, he accomplished a seamless transition. And dastangoi, once regarded as the common man’s art form, came to occupy space in the rarefied environs of literary festivals. The upper class fell for its guilty pleasure with the energy of a new convert.

Faruqi, a multi-faceted genius who spent a large part of his professional life with the Indian Postal Service, came into his own only after retirement in the early 1990s. For decades, the fire kept simmering. For years, there was a spark here in the form of a literary journal and a spark there in the form of a short story, and yet another in the form of richly layered criticism. But a full-fledged conflagration had to wait another day.

Born in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh in 1935, he obtained a Masters in English Literature from Allahabad University in 1955 and began writing a few years later. But he came into his own only after relocating to Allahabad after retirement. It was there that he penned Ka’i Chand... it was there too that he gave in to his indulgences; the love of pets, birds and flowers. It was there that he expressed complete control over his whims by staying away from cigarettes, very much his constant companion during his postal service days.

That self-abnegation stood him, and lovers of literature, in good stead. It allowed him to use his pen to express angst and sorrow, love and melancholy. He was not a writer of beautiful sunsets and transcendent sunshine. Unafraid of sadness, unwilling to yield to it, he walked a literary tightrope where he could tease joy and succumbed, albeit briefly, to the wretchedness of the human condition.

In delicious ironies, in half statements, in the joy of melancholy, lay the strength of his expression. So much so that Urdu lovers, often brought up on shama-parwana poetry and the romanticised world of surrender, created a special niche for Faruqi’s works. It helped that he could translate his works into English. It also helped that unlike many Urdu writers, he did not shy away from literary festivals. This ensured that his literary artistry was available for a wider audience.

It was at one such literary do in Delhi that this correspondent was to host him some six years ago. But that was not to be owing to a minor accident on the way from Agra. But Faruqi was not to be denied. There were scores of people eager to host him and bask in his reflected glory.

Indeed, he was that kind of man. Much loved by his readers and much sought after by publishers, he was conferred with the Saraswati Samman for Sher-e Shor Angrez, a four-volume treatise on Mir. In 2009, he was conferred the Padma Shri. It made his mantlepiece richer. For Faruqi, life was all about intellectual rigour, poetry and literature itself, not about bruised egos or inflated dreams but redemption within. Unsurprisingly, as Mehr Afshan said, he “transitioned peacefully”.