Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Mayank Austen Soofi

He wrote in Urdu and English, and his library was probably one of the most impressive ones in Allahabad, with its 10,000 books in both languages—along with every single issue of the New York Review of Books, going back to its founding in 1963.

Writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who died on 25th December, 2010, aged 85, was held reverently in the world of contemporary Indian literature, but the awe he commanded weighed easy on his shoulders. Though he is identified with serious literature, he himself told me once, while showing  his e-Reader, “This holds my thriller reads. John Grisham on Kindle is my daily candy.” On more solemn moments, however, he confessed that his natural affinity was for pre-18th century sensibilities, yet untouched by Western influence, emphasising that he had a particular fondness for Urdu and Persian poets.

A retired officer of the Indian Postal Service, Mr Faruqi’s best known novel, The Mirror Of Beauty, was a weighty Mughal-era epic, largely set in Delhi. He had originally written it in Urdu (Kai Chaand The Sar-e-Aasmaan, 2006) and translated it into English himself, in 2013. His next book, The Sun That Rose From The Earth, containing fictionalized stories of great Urdu poets, was a part of his life’s extensive oeuvre that includes a four-volume treatise on poet Mir Taqi Mir. In fact, one of the projects he was busy with in his final years was translating Mir’s poems into English.

“His contribution is immense in Urdu adab (literature and history), tanquid (criticism) and tehqeeq (research),” says poet Iffat Zarrin who has read all of Faruqi’s Urdu works. “He was the roshan sitara (bright star) of Urdu, a last link uniting the old and the new tehzeeb (culture) and tareekh (period).”

Author TCA Raghavan, who frequently corresponded with Faruqi while working on his own acclaimed biography of poet Abdul Rahim, describes him as an extraordinary writer and scholar, who was also one of our great storytellers. “His immense knowledge about the culture of North India during the period of Mughal decline enabled him to create a universe different from the conventional view of the previous centuries. Through Mr Faruqi's marvellous prose, we enter a world not of decadence and decay but of refinement, literary achievement and enormous creativity.”

Mr Faruqi located his fiction in the cultural and literary past of the Indo-Muslim way of life of the 18th and 19th centuries. But he never regarded it as a dead past. “I’m not writing historical fiction. I am writing about poetry, love, death, what it meant to be a poet, or a lover, or an Indian at that time. It was a very rich and significant period of our history, even though it has lapsed from our memory,” he once told me.

Very possessive about his book collection, Mr Faruqi was especially proud of his 46 volumes of the Urdu oral romance, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, that were printed by Munshi Nawal Kishore in Lucknow and Kanpur from 1888 to 1917. He was also fond of many English language novelists and poets. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was the first English novel he read from cover to cover as a young boy of 14 —he was, by then, already very well-read in Urdu literature. At one point, he especially loved Thomas Hardy, so much so that he would read everything he could manage to find by and about him in the small town of Gorakhpur, where he grew up.

Despite becoming a towering figure of Urdu literature, Mr Faruqi didn’t think of himself as part of the establishment. In fact, through the long-defunct literary magazine Shabkhoon, which he once founded, published and edited, he would challenge the “hegemony” of the Urdu Progressives by encouraging new writers to free themselves from the standard doctrines.

In later years, he divided his time between Allahabad and Delhi, where one of his two daughters is an English professor in Jamia Millia Islamia University. His wife, Jamila, died in 2007. Mr Faruqi himself had recently recovered from Covid. 

An easy-going man, Mr Faruqi was nevertheless a sophisticated snob. On being asked why he lived in Allahabad, when he could easily have settled in cosmopolitan Delhi, he had answered, “Delhi and Allahabad are almost alike. I’d prefer New York.”

(Facebook: 26 December 2020)

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Dec 27, 2020

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