Essay: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi - drawing out the colossus
Sabt Ast Bar Jareeda E Alam Dawam -e Maa -- My permanence is stamped on the register of the world
He came to Delhi, for the last time, in mid-October, 2020. It was his second trip after the Corona-imposed lockdown. To increase his comfort, since he used to visit Delhi almost every month, his daughter Baran had moved to a larger flat in New Friends Colony. He had recently had a fall in the bathroom in Allahabad, and was unable to fully lift his arm. Also there were bruises from dog bites; his beloved Bholi often dug into him. I would visit him every other day.
One day, I mentioned I was reading Arthur Dudney’s monograph on Khan Arzu, the great 18th century Persian lexicographer and intellectual from Delhi. Very likely Dudney had derived the inspiration for his thesis from his (SFR’s) path breaking article about Indian Persian, from more than two decades ago. He praised Dudney’s work, and said he had written the foreword to a book by him. Then he spoke about Arzu and the debate about Persian’s provenance in the 18th century. Arzu, as he had shown long ago, drew a distinction between literary language, particularly the language of poetry, and everyday speech. Anybody could master a literary language, which was different from one’s mother tongue. Until the 18th century, Persian was regarded as a cosmopolitan language with no exclusive association with any particular country or place. The colonial encounter, and dominance, of the 18th and 19th centuries, and the colonial masters’ desperate quest to associate languages with communities, and religions, resulted in Persian becoming identified exclusively with Iran. He then cited an example of the great Anglophone reformist Mohammed Husain Azad who travelled to Iran in the 19th century and was bamboozled by the native speakers’ poor command over the polished idiom. This led to another story from the classical period about a Persian speaker who was befuddled by a particular idiom in Arabic. He had long decried the late servile attitude towards Persian, and its supposed Iranian ownership, which had made Indians feel inferior about their own Persian, and degraded Urdu before Persian. So it was that Ghalib dismissed all Indo-Persianists saying he only admitted Khusrau as having any worth. But poor Ghalib himself was later ousted from the canon by Shibli Nomani in his authoritative and formidable history of Persian literature in the early 20th century.
Bareabbu had some difficulty getting up, and moving his arm, even in walking. As he got up to go the bathroom, assisted by his minder Chhotu, he rued his frailty and said he hoped he would never have to become mohtaj ie dependent, which he meant in terms of becoming an invalid or being bedridden, unable to perform bodily functions. This was a fear he often expressed. He was a private person, and very fastidious about his hygiene and cleanliness. He was also in many ways a true g̠ẖani, that is a person who is independent, self-contained, un-needy of anything of this world, the very opposite of mohtaj. His fear of becoming a dependent in old age had sound basis because of the pride and rectitude with which he had led his life.
He had been preparing a dictionary of archaic words in Urdu, and had completed some 15,000 entries. It was back breaking labour, and unlikely to be rewarding. He had to pick and lug and pore over heavy dictionaries. I would ask him to write another novel instead. But he felt that if he didn’t do this work then who would? The fifth book in his multi-volume work on Dastans was due out soon. He was planning a few more volumes of that. There were other stories, and novels, and a ceaseless spate of articles about various aspects of Urdu’s past and present. Only he could produce groundbreaking work with everything he touched, whether it was literary history, philology, lexicography, fiction, poetry, criticism, rehabilitation of Mir as the greatest Urdu poet (over 3,000 pages on that) rediscovering Dastans, poetic exegesis, understanding Iqbal or Akbar Allahabadi anew. Everybody always said, with good reason, that he worked like a djinn, that he had produced more in one lifetime than multiple institutions did. It was difficult to think of another modern scholar or writer who had a similar impact on the language and literature they worked in. His influence was so all-encompassing.
Over the last few years, the global political turn deeply depressed him. It sapped at his vitality and will to live, and at his motivation to work. Sometimes, I felt he should forget about politics but he felt that becoming indifferent would mean to concede defeat, and he wanted to resist and fight as much as he could. Every mean turn in our politics left him more and more enraged and exhausted. The first week of November was, thus, an important time for him as the US and Bihar election results were due. He was uncertain that Trump would lose although I kept assuring him; but when I told him that the exit polls were predicting a huge win for the opposition in Bihar, he perked up a bit. One evening when Baran was in Dehradun, I took him some grilled fish and cupcakes that my wife Anusha had made. He was a very fussy and sparse eater. Only certain kinds of chicken, potatoes and dry fruits were favoured; but desserts and sweets were always welcome. The over reliance on the latter had given him a paunch. Lately, he wobbled a bit when he walked, and sometimes needed support. This limited his social life. I urged him to freely use a wheel chair but he was chagrined. He had already conceded a radical change to his sartorial style. The stylish and trademark kurta pajamas, finely embroidered, were proving difficult to manoeuvre with his infirmities so, on his last visit, he went to his favourite South Extension store, Pall Mall, and bought himself a number of t-shirts and track suit bottoms. They were easier to put on. Strangely, he didn’t at all look strange in them! Anyway, that evening he insisted on walking to the dining table, and talked with gusto for hours. He enjoyed the fish, but the garlic in the sauce was not to his taste. We got talking of lockdown and its hardships, and he responded with a Mir couplet, which he said was really apt for lockdown-induced loss and deprivation, especially for the migrant workers.
Sannahte Mein Jaan Ke Hosh o Hawas o Dam Na thaAsbab Sara Le Gaya, Aaya Tha Ek Sailab Sa
In the stillness of the heart, there was no life or strength or sense leftThe belongings of this abode were all borne away by the flood
Then he recited a Persian sher, which he said almost always stabbed him and left him breathless each time he said it aloud:
Raftam Ki Khar Az Pa Kasham, Mehmil Nihan Shud Az NazarYak Lamha Ghafil Gashtam, Sad Sala Raaham Door Shud
He recited it with deep feeling and with dramatic overtones, as was his wont. He said the sher always tore at him because it described such a tragedy, and one brought about for no fault of the protagonist. The protagonist is steadfast in her devotion, devotion to whatever cause she has set her eyes on, and only takes her eyes off for a split second, only so that she can pull out the thorns, which she has borne because of her exertions and so that she may walk the path better, but…
I bent down to pull out my thorns, and the [camel] Rider disappeared from my visionI took my eyes off only for a moment, and my cause was separated by hundreds of years
He was instantly reminded of another couplet with the same connotation, which he said wasn’t as powerful as the first.
Yak Chashm Zadan Ghafil Az Aan Maah Na BaashiShayad Ki Nigaah-e Kunad Aagah na Bashi
Even for a split second do not take your eyes off that moon [like beauty]It may cast a glance in your direction and you may not be looking [and hence remain unaware of your benediction]
He said this sher is about devotion, and fate and caprice too. I said this is a sher about bandagi ie submission also; he said, yes, that too.
The interminable US counting process exhausted him, but I was consuming the result 24x7 and kept his hopes up about Biden. But the outcome of the Bihar elections left him dismayed. However, the rumour that Putin may have to step down because he had Alzheimer’s increased our faith in humanity’s future. He was in fine flow when I next visited him. I asked him about a Mir couplet; I couldn’t remember the second hemistich. (Even as I sometimes asked him these questions, or meanings of particular verses, especially Persian verses, I was aware of my immense privilege, and self-indulgence, in drawing out this colossus for such petty explicatory purposes, but he was generous, and enjoyed speaking to me. I wasn’t learned enough to be a sahrday to him, but I listened with attention, which was easy because he was such a scintillating conversationalist.) This would be an evening of stark verses.
Bahut Sa’ee Kariye to Mar Rahte Hain
He corrected and completed the sher —
Bahut Sa’ee Kariye to Mar Rahiye MirBas Apna to Itna Hi Maqdoor Hai
When we make our greatest effort we dieThis is all that was fated for us Mir
Immediately, he remembered another verse by a classical master, by Sanai I think, one which I have not tired of reciting since.
Ustukhan Haaye Saalikan NugzashtRahrawan Ra Ba Raahbar Muhtaj
The bones of the seekers that are strewn on the pathHave left the wayfarers free of the dependence on a guide
He said that during his Master’s degree, he and his friends were crazy about TS Eliot’s Wasteland and this line in it:
I think we are in the rat’s alley, where the dead men lost their bones
“But later I read this sher. Ye sher zyada badmashi ka hai, zyada zalimana hai…yahi haddiyan hain yahi rasta hai, so many implications, log marenge, ham bhi marenge.’ This sher is so much more chilling, so much more wicked, sadistic even; these are the bones, this is the way, people died, even we will die. So what?”
I recited a verse by Faizi that I had recently read in one of his essays.
Kas Naguyadam Az Manzil-e Aakhir KhabriSad Bayaban Bugzasht o Deegre Dar Pesh Ast
Nobody brings the news of the last stage [end] of [our journey]I have crossed a hundred wastelands and am now faced with another
In response, he quoted Munir Niyazi, a poet whom he deeply loved. Unlike other contemporaries such as Zafar Iqbal or Ahmed Mushtaq, Munir Niyazi, he said, was a totally unique voice with his own world of symbols, images and idiom, and it was so mainly because he was quite illiterate, meaning that he had not studied poetry or literature in the way his peers had done. Hence, his barebones matter-of-fact tone even for the starkest truths in life; for instance in this sher:
Ik Aur Dariyā Kā Sāmnā Thā ‘Munīr’ Mujh Ko // Maiñ Ek Dariyā Ke Paar Utrā To Maiñ Ne Dekhā
I was faced with another river Munir//I saw after I had managed to cross the river
We had shared so many stark verses about the absurd cruelties of life and of the vagaries of fate. We had no idea how soon they would all become a lived reality for him, and then for those around him.
Mahmood Farooqui revived the performing art of Dastangoi drawing on the scholarship and guidance of SR Faruqi