An accident got him into fiction writing, he comments with a laugh, but you’d be a fool to take it seriously. Regarded as the ‘TS Eliot of Urdu criticism’, Faruqi is one of the few remaining classical poets of Urdu in the country. Apart from his works of verse including Sher, Gair Sher, Aur Nasr, it his novel in Urdu – The Mirror of Beauty (English translation) that we hear him discuss on Saturday on the lawns of Taj Chandigarh during the Chandigarh Literature Festival.
In conversation with Ashok Vajpeyi, leading Hindi poet, essayist, critic, and Faruqi’s friend, it is a delight to hear the two throw melodious-sounding shers in the discourse before it dawns upon you that poetry is a way of life with them. When Baran Faruqi, Faruqi’s daughter, adds that while growing up she often heard her father profess a desire to pen a few words that match Ghalib’s so that his life’s purpose would be solved, you are convinced of how deep Faruqi’s love for poetry runs.
“To me, Rumi or Khusro – men who lived a 1,000 years ago – are my next-door neighbours. I live and breathe in them. The kind of love that we have for poetry was not uncommon in the Indo-Muslim society that I grew up in,” says Faruqi, with Vajpeyi chipping in, “There was poetry living outside classrooms at that time. That culture is now drowned, when even the illiterate would recite poems of Surdas and Kalidas.”
In the Mirror of Beauty, written in Urdu and translated into English and Hindi, Faruqi has chronicled a time period from history that witnessed the last remaining years of the Mughal rule in India. Tempered with Faruqi’s precious poetry, the 2006 novel is about Wazir Khanum, a beautiful, supremely intelligent woman, the daughter of a craftsman who elopes with an officer of the East India Company. “She is almost perfect, so much so that it makes her unattainable. Wazir is a girl who knows how to make her life’s decisions, take risks and use her mind. A lot of women have accused me of being in love with Wazir Khanum, and why not?” laughs Faruqi.
As the novel traverses through the deserts of Rajputana, the Kashmir valley and Delhi, Faruqi’s characters – complex and endearing – help you romance the culture, poetry and civilisation of that time. “The novel was born out of an accident, beginning with the poetry of Dagh, but I realised his mother was more fictionable than him,’’ laughs the author, adding on a serious note the reason for choosing the 18th and 19th centuries to chronicle in his work. “I always believed that the 18th and 19th centuries are the most under-valued and misunderstood centuries, especially the 18th, being so powerful and vibrant a time period.”
Faruqi says that it struck him that he was writing an elegy of Delhi in the form of the story of Wazir Khanum. “Just like Wazir, while Delhi had everything going for it, Bahadur Shah Zafar – an old fool, but fully equipped to be a king – brought it down. I thought I owed something to these centuries and the writers born in this time period,” he says.
Vajpeyi, in admiration, points out to the titles of the chapters, some as beautiful as: “Maal to ikatha karo, lootere aa jayenge.” But, Faruqi won’t take the credit, saying the lines aren’t his.
While the two agree that it goes to Faruqi’s credit that he could bring to life characters that lived with dignity, depth and understanding despite existing in a declining milieu, the author is unhappy with the way present-day Indians run down their own culture. “Ours is the only culture that denigrates its own past. There are still people who say Mir [Taqi Mir] was not a good poet,” he says sadly.