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Only God is untouched by blemish

The Mirror of Beauty is a fine tale of resistance of a very specific people, embedded in a very particular ethos, writes Shahrukh Alam.

books Updated: Oct 14, 2013 11:50 IST
The-mirror-of-beauty
The-mirror-of-beauty

The Mirror of Beauty is a fine tale of resistance of a very specific people, embedded in a very particular ethos

The Mirror of Beauty
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Penguin
Rs. 899 PP952

The Mirror of Beauty is a fine book. It tells the story of Wazir Khanam and through her, the story of a certain class of Indo-Muslims and their cultural and literary traditions. It also tells the story of rupture, of a tradition coming to an end in its encounter with power.

Wazir Khanam’s story parallels the Mughal Court and its elites’ negotiations with the Company Bahadur; she could even be a metaphor for Imperial Delhi of the 19th Century and of its pillage. However, The Mirror of Beauty is the tale of resistance (and loss) of a very specific people, embedded in a very particular ethos.

In telling this tale, the author displays an impressive knowledge of attendant historical and cultural details. I could not presume to comment on the evident breadth of scholarship and on its skilful representation: in the event, I might only refer to some secondary debates.

Kai Chand The Sar-e Asman, the Urdu version, is a far superior novel. It has a felicity of language and a flow that is unmatched. As the narrative moves, across regions and in time, and from the zenana to the bazaar, the spoken language changes ever so slightly and seemingly without effort.

In the English translation, such subtleties have to be described to the reader: “Woh Khanam ke bazaar waali kaun hain? Bai ji sarkar yaad farmaate hain.”

“‘Who is the lady from Khanam ka Bazaar? Bai ji Sahib is kindly remembering her.’ Her Hindi revealed her Deccani origins, musical and more flexible than was normally heard in Delhi.”

An aerial view of Old Delhi in the early 20th century, much like it must have been in Wazir Khanam’s time.(Getty images)

I thought of reading the two versions together for a particular reason. The cover of the English edition carries words of praise by three distinguished authors. It struck me that all three read and understand Urdu.

I wondered if they had read the Urdu version, how they had compared the original with the translation and whether one might read into their commendations any relative value of the English over the Urdu.

The fact of the commendations had no direct bearing on my next thought, but I was reminded that writings about the Indo-Muslim elite and their attendant cultural, social and literary histories may be viewed through the liberal lens or the subaltern one.

The former tends to exoticize and the latter tends to dismiss. The acts of translation into English of works such as this are not without underpinnings of notions of power. There are negotiations therein that ‘turn the text’ into more accessible, marketable formats. But to begin with, not too many people read Urdu and this is a book that must be read.

My own proficiency at reading the language is limited and I would not have been able to enjoy the Urdu version without using the English edition as an explicating primer. Kai Chand The Sar-e-Asman has warmth and a natural ease of flow; the English version seems to have been written with great care and formality.

The (latter) Mirror of Beauty, then, is a translation in the classical style: it avoids the use of Urdu words, preferring to translate them into loose English equivalents. They sound awkward sometimes: ‘Great day arrived (Bara Din aaya)’ to refer to Christmas; or “‘Mirza Ghalib cast a glance at the audience and commanded: ‘I present the opening verse.’”

Here ‘commanded’ appears in place of farmaya, used in deferential reference to someone’s speech. But it also grows on you, this style. You are forced to wonder what the original Urdu phrase might be and to engage more deeply. As turning of texts in translations go, this one seems to have been skillfully negotiated. There are some usages, though, that caused agony.

The description by Dagh of a verse as ‘explosive’, or Mirza Ghalib being described as ‘a literary guru’.
It would also have been wonderful if this fantastical account of handsome navabs and beautiful begums had weaved into it stories of other lives too.

Actually, the book is teeming with subalterns, but they make fleeting appearances: it tells us, for instance, about the historical antecedents of the Urdabegni guards, nothing about their persons. The underclass is unrepresented, thus colonialism appears to have disrupted the social and cultural order only of the elite.

It would appear that there was no friction between the Indian social classes. On the other hand, how does one write an epic if one has to ensure that all are well represented? Why should literature be subjected to the rigours of parliamentary democracy?

It is often said of Persian and Urdu literary culture that it was limited in scope. The Mirror of Beauty taught me an important lesson. The sections on Dagh’s initiation into poetry hint at different registers for judging and appreciating poetry in those times.

To write poetry was as much technique as it was art and the former comprised nurturing of the ability, through rigorous practice, of emulating masters as closely as possible. And yet, newer readers will judge from all kinds of different vantage points.

As Hakim Momin Khan said: Dil mein kya-kya aaye hai baat/ Aur kya-kya jaaye hai…

Shahrukh Alam works with the Patna Collective