He's edited a literary magazine for 40 years. Now, to reach a wider audience, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, considered the T.S. Eliot of Urdu critics, has come out with "The Mirror of Beauty", an English translation of his Urdu novel "Kai Chand the Sar-e-Aasman" that recreates the era of the late 19th century, with Wazir Khanam as the protagonist.
In times when women would abide by the purdah, Khanam comes across as an assertive and intelligent woman who was aware of her beauty and used this to her advantage. But the bold personal choices she made reflect the strength of her character.
"Women like Wazir Khanam were unusual at that time, but not entirely rare and difficult to find," the 78-year-old Faruqi, who is based in Allahabad, told IANS in an e-mail interview.
The fictional novel is woven around the real-life character of Khanam and this helped the author in staying true to the chronology of her life.
"It was history which solved my problem, because she is a real character, and all that she did, or all that happened to her, are strictly true, except for the details," he added.
The intriguing journey takes off when, as a teenager Khanam elopes with an Englishman, Marston Blake. But after he is murdered she comes back to Delhi with their two children. She then marries the handsome Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, and there are many alliances and affairs thereafter. But none of them ends on a happy note.
The Urdu original was published in 2006 and while in translation there is always the fear of misinterpretation, Faruqi, being the author, has taken a few liberties.
"I had to sacrifice things absolutely specific to the Urdu language and culture: women's language. That is, words and expressions used by none but women in those times; words, though common in themselves, but having special connotation in literature," he said.
"I can say that except for the instance of a modern narrator, or a modern person through whose eyes the events are seen, I have consistently used the Urdu, or the English, of the early 19th century," he added.
It is not just the heavyweight characters that we get acquainted with while reading the book; the detailed description of characters, the ambience and even the embroidered, rich shawls or bejewelled clothes that they wear build a fine imagery of a bygone era.
A delight for those interested in history, Faruqi is clear about the readers whom he had in mind while he decided to translate his book and reach out to a wider audience.
"I wrote the book keeping three things in mind: I Shamsur Rahman Faruqi; anyone interested enough in the Indo-Muslim literary and social culture of the 18th and 19th century to take the trouble to read the book; and my immediate family," he explained.
A recipient of the prestigious Saraswati Samman literary award, Faruqi was also the editor of Urdu literary magazine "Shabkhoon" for 40 years.
While the translation part was easy for the author, selecting an apt title wasn't that easy.
"The question of the English title bothered all of us: family, publisher, friends in foreign countries, among them those who didn't know enough Urdu to have read the original but who are people of good taste in English," Faruqi said.
"The title was more or less discovered by my younger daughter Baran in a translation from Hafiz that I made long ago. The actual line was: My eyes are the mirror for her beauty," he said, adding that everyone liked it and "The Mirror of Beauty" became the title.
"My working title was Wazir Khanam, actually," he concluded.
Published by Penguin, the 1,000-page book is a treat for those interested in history. It is priced at Rs. 699.