Keeper of the Sacred Wood

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At home in the world SR Faruqi
At home in the world SR Faruqi. Photo: Ishan Tankha

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is said to be a formidable, forbidding figure. As a literary theorist and scholar of Urdu literature, he looms so large that a fellow academic, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, described him as the TS Eliot of Urdu criticism. Eliot, famously, worked at a bank, while Faruqi, equally incongruously, was a career civil servant, employed by the Indian Postal Service. There is little evidence of that career in his conversation, peppered with allusion to French theorists, and imperious manner; he has a reputation for treating interviewers with asperity. In short, this is not a man who suffers fools. And journalists are nothing if not fools. Foolish questions, partially informed questions, are the operating currency of journalism. Unlike scholars, journalists have to be generalists, pick up information as widely and indiscriminately as possible and hope to perform, if only for the length of one piece, a convincing impression of familiarity with the subject at hand. Some readers might buy the performance (it is, after all, for their benefit); experts are likely to scoff.

So it was with some fear that I, knowing little of Urdu literature beyond some Ismat Chughtai and a smattering of the obvious poetry in translation, approached my meeting with Faruqi. In the event, he could not have been more engaging, more generous. Avuncular would be the wrong word — at 78, he is still sharp, still capable of anger — but he is solicitous, forgiving of callowness and as eager to talk as possible in the middle of a long day of successive interviews. We meet in Delhi, where he has come from his home in Allahabad for the launch of his The Mirror of Beauty, his own translation into English of his 2006 novel Ka’i Chand the Sar-e Asman. He is ensconced on a divan in his daughter’s flat in a quiet, leafy part of Jamia Nagar.

A pug is wheezing excitedly around the TEHELKA photographer’s ankles. A tray of chocolates is proffered and our conversation is interrupted by convivial hisses and crackles from the kitchen.

Cracklehiss, as Faruqi launches into an explanation of the difficulty of translating 19th-century Urdu into 19th century English. “Much of high Urdu and Persian is absolutely impossible to convey in English. I cannot translate complex, literary Urdu into an equally complex, literary English. I cannot translate Urdu archaisms into equivalent English archaisms. I had to give up those things entirely.” Hisscrackle! As Faruqi moves on to discussing how in his desire to keep his English suitably period he kept, beside his Oxford English Dictionary, some Dickens handy to confirm his intuition about certain words and phrases.

Before I met Faruqi, I found it odd that a writer so versed in literary theory, a writer whose early efforts at short stories were “written in the style of Robbe-Grillet”, would turn to the 19th-century novel as a model. Robbe-Grillet was, of course, associated with the ‘nouveau roman’, the new novel he wanted to write in response to the classic 19th-century novel by the likes of Balzac. Each generation, Robbe-Grillet argued, had a duty to counter the previous, to engage it in dialogue but ultimately to move on, infuse old books and old ideas with newness. Not that even the ‘new’ novel is ever strictly new. Formal literary experimentation, Faruqi says, “is right next to my heart.” We are talking of Oulipo, the group of mostly French writers formed at the start of the 1960s who committed themselves to writing within arbitrary, self-imposed constraints — for instance, and perhaps most famously, Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic A Void, a novel written entirely without recourse to the letter ‘e’. Oulipo, Faruqi argues, is instinctively familiar to him, it’s the sort of dexterous play that is “everywhere in my culture, in Arabic, in Sanskrit, in Farsi”. He cites in his defence a recent book by Yigal Bronner, a Sanskritist at the University of Chicago, devoted to uncovering whole poems that can be read in entirely different ways. Bronner, in an interview, has spoken of his and fellow Sanskrit scholars wonder at the way single words “can have 17 meanings”, has written of sentences that metamorphose “nouns, verbs and prepositions — in a way that creates a new sentence with a new vocabulary”. Meaning, Sanskrit poets knew back in the sixth century, without needing help from Derrida, is fluid, protean, to be grasped at and interpreted and never quite fully understood. A single Sanskrit poem, Faruqi explains, can at once “be read as a Mahakavya or as a love story”.

This breadth of reference, this ease with Persian literature, with Sanskrit, with English novels and French theory is characteristic of Faruqi. Opponents, in the fraught battles waged on the musty pages of little magazines, have accused him of being in thrall to Western critics but all of Faruqi’s work, including The Mirror of Beauty, the full to bursting debut novel written so late in his career, has underlined his abiding point that his culture has a depth of learning, insight and greatness equal to any other. It’s a lesson that colonialism has ensured that we’ve forgotten. British critics, European critics, speak, Faruqi explains, with the authority of an unbroken tradition, they traverse the centuries, each writer adding to and in conversation with the work accrued over centuries of his fellows. On the other hand, for us, 1857 might as well have been year zero. Near the end of our time together, weary with talk, Faruqi said, “I sometimes feel that my life has been wasted.” The work of his life — the multi-volume studies of Mir; Shabkhoon, the literary magazine he edited with flair and distinction; the combative criticism; the magisterial surveys such as Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, published by the Oxford University Press — has been to rebuild his, and by extension his readers’, connection to their culture.

The Mirror of Beauty
The Mirror of Beauty
SR Faruqi Penguin
India 984 pp; Rs 899

Such intent explains why The Mirror of Beauty is so filled with information, with family trees and names and recollections of tradition and ritual. It’s a novel that serves as a reminder, an evocation of an entire age, a way of life destroyed by the British in 1857. “This novel,” Faruqi says, “would not have existed had there been continuity. No non-Indian, or non-colonised person can understand, however much they may sympathise. Had there been continuity, there would have been people passing on their knowledge, their understanding, their impressions, what they knew. But the experience of colonisation began with them saying that we had nothing to pass on.” We were taught as a people to be self-hating, willing, Faruqi says, as so many writers and scholars were, to concede the intrinsic inferiority of our literature, our culture.

Perhaps, even by consciously writing a 19th-century novel, Faruqi has not moved so far from Robbe-Grillet after all, finding a form, as The Paris Review once said of Robbe-Grillet, in which to mix fact and fiction, memory and imagination. The Mirror of Beauty is the result of all of Faruqi’s knowledge, his memories, his reading, his affection, his dreams. His models were not other novels — the great Urdu (though that word is also a monster born of colonialism) writers wrote short stories — but the likes of Mirza Baig’s The Last Musha’irah of Delhi, translated into English by Akhtar Qamber. He turns to Amir Khusrow, citing the preface to Ghurratul-Kamal written in 1294, which Faruqi describes as “almost more important than the divan itself”. “One point Khusrow made was that a person can become an ‘ustad’ only after he has been acknowledged in his own culture. Baap-re-baap, I had never realised that. I thought that if some Englishman living in London who couldn’t pronounce my name, if he certified it then main saala bada aadmi hoon. But this man in 1294 was so confident of his culture, of his way of looking at things.”

Born in 1935, in, as he puts it, “a literate family”, it has taken Faruqi a lifetime to achieve a similar confidence. The flurry of activity surrounding the release in English, six years later, of his novel, the blurbs from the likes of Orhan Pamuk, is met with bemused gratitude. But the opinions Faruqi is interested in, the ones he cares about, are those expressed in Urdu. It is them he wants to engage. Faruqi studied English literature at the University of Allahabad but to his father, educated at the once august St Andrews College in Gorakhpur, it was the crisp prose of Nehru, the writings of Gandhi that young Faruqi could never quite match. It would be convenient to say that writing in Urdu was the response, that translating The Mirror of Beauty is his delayed riposte, but Faruqi’s literary inclinations began at a much earlier age. He was just seven when he wrote his first line of poetry. It was a cri de coeur against his father. Faruqi recalls the plangent line. “Who can understand,” the young poet asked, “the sad state of my heart?” “Extremely conventional,” the 78-year-old critic says of his early efforts, “but very true for a young child.” It is a sadness, a loss, you could argue, that Faruqi continues to write to assuage.

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