The sheer depth will overwhelm you — for what you are reading is a graphic, beautiful, melancholic and serene account of an age gone by. Trust Shamsur Rahman Faruqi as he takes you through the Delhi of the 18th century, the much-favoured land of the poet Mir Taqi Mir. The ace raconteur and a celebrated literary critic that he is, Faruqi will surely transport you to a realm that will, with deft and languid ease, provide you with vignettes of the author’s homeland, which he clutches as possessively as a young Mir could be clutching a bundle of papers, wandering the haunting alleys on long winter nights.
Reverberations and memories will haunt you long after you have finished reading this minor classic with competing gems and couplets gently demanding your attention. Faruqi, shortlisted recently for a major literary prize, is a priceless storyteller who will tell you about Chandni Chowk, the flower-sellers’ market in Mali Wara and so many other haunts where on a lucky stroll you could still stumble upon genuine Persian jasmine. As a cultured craftsman who is comfortable with attar kiosks and the houses that mourn the men who have died in heroic battles, he gently lets you in to breathe and live some more.
This collection has its own little history. It was first published in Urdu as Savaar aur Doosre Afsaane by Aaj Ki Kitabein, a Karachi-based publishing house, in 2001. It has now been translated into English by none other than Faruqi himself, and by doing so, he has done all of us signal favour. This volume comes when we have not yet forgotten his magnum opus, The Mirror of Beauty, which was priceless and ennobling.
The tales in The Sun That Rose From The Earth defy convenient classification or compartmentalisation. Call them what you will — short story, novella or novel. You need to have time as well as aesthetic sensibility to enjoy the remarkable prose.
The book begins with Bright Star, Lone Splendour. This was published as Ghalib Afsana in 1997 under the takhallus or pen name of Beni Madho Ruswa. He is also the young narrator of the story, a wannabe Rajput poet who is orphaned in the 1857 revolt. He travels from Azamgarh to Mirza Ghalib’s house in Ballimaran in Delhi to get the great poet’s Urdu divan (book) autographed! Ghalib himself is rather intrigued by all this, and typically wonders aloud what something costing half-a-rupee will gain from his autograph! Ghalib always thought that the way to express one’s appreciation of a poet’s work is to present him a memento, or a necklace of 21 gems, especially pearls.
For Faruqi, the literary sojourn exemplified a serious attempt at writing fiction after a long time… a kind of reassurance that the fiction writer in him was not dead.
This story, like the four others in the collection, is soaked with divine verse that mocks the violence and waste and serves as a tonic for youngsters who are orphaned by battles and left disconsolate in yearnings unknown.
Poetry wins new patrons and serves to more than just stoke carnal expressions. This is where you come across biting humour, succulent prose and a sense of history, all at once. Make it a point to internalise the depth of the stuff that has been offered, and spread the word around.
Faruqi is at his best here, starting out with the inevitable and luminous presence of Ghalib in the first story. Apart from Ghalib, poets such as Mir, Shaikh Mushafi and Budh Singh Qalandar can be located in a resounding set of tales. Those charlatans who limit Urdu to a religion are firmly and decisively humbled and shown their place by a master craftsman who was a noted civil servant during his younger years. As Faruqi himself told a news channel, these stories are an “expression and celebration of our composite Hindu-Muslim culture. Urdu is not the property of Muslims alone”.
There is this incredible nugget about Mir’s first love, whose fascinating story will transport you to Belgrade. It is a gripping tale about the poet’s apparent fixation for someone he is bound to lose in the end. Stirring passages about the mysterious Nurus Saadat, Mir’s uncertain command over Arabic, the unusual but very welcome fragrance of the attar of cloves, the gentle initiation into something divinely intimate: it is all there, expertly created. Mir’s verse trying to match changing moods of the moment, the agony and ecstasy of desire and more makes it all very rewarding.
Some critics may fault Faruqi for being a bit too heavy at times. Some of the passages do seem interminable, and a trifle too long. But such is the general feel of the ethos that one is grateful for the manner in which a tehzeeb, a way of life has been recreated. The kind of unchallenged reverence that Faruqi enjoys does not intimidate you. It ever so deceptively ushers you into that period of history that combined literary work with nostalgia for the old Hindu-Muslim culture. Here is superb fiction, located in the cultural and literary past, and Faruqi traverses poetry, love and death with ease and aplomb. The effort should help a dying culture and a vanishing breed to revive. That, of course, is asking for too much, but do pick up this book to know your Mir and Ghalib better.
The pathos and melancholy of the first three tales and the incredible ease with which the period is created by a master storyteller makes it an absolute treasure trove.
The depth and the erudition of this extraordinary man from Allahabad certainly calls for him being shortlisted for a major literary award. Not for nothing is he referred to as among the last of the real ustads in our midst. The galaxy of poets assembled for minute, loving attention could not have asked for more. This indeed is a collection of brilliantly imagined and superbly realised portraits of poets and poetry.