Ode to an Artist

As he walks slowly into the conference room, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi wryly grins at the audience with his clichéd cerebral face: moustached, deep-set bespectacled eyes with slightly backcombed grey hair. The winter of 2015 is on the cusp of its breath in Jamia and he is here to deliver Sajjad Zaheer Memorial Lecture. I stumbled into this event by fortuitous timing, though I earlier had the delight to hear him speak on ‘The Truth of Fictions’ in 2011.

When one looks back at various events that make us who we are, it is hard to believe that the defining episodes of life are a gamble of chance. Life is already mapped, may be in pencil. During my three unmemorable years at Amar Singh College, I would fortnightly visit Abdullah News Agency on the other side of the Amira Kadal Bridge to skim over, and occasionally buy, Reader’s Digest, Urdu Duniya, Hadees-e-Dil and Sunday editions of The Times of India (for Jug Suraiya’s satire). I recall an issue of Urdu Duniya with an incredible essay “Firaq Aur Jamal-e-Yaar.” Perhaps written by Ibrahim Ashk—yes, the Bollywood lyricist— its crux was intended to place Firaq Gorakpuri far beneath the likes of Ghalib, Mir and other masters of Urdu ghazal. I had already read sections of Firaq’s Kulliyat and wanted to know whether Ashk’s ideas had resonance in Urdu academia. After much toil, I finally had success at an unlikely place: the untrodden AS College library where I got hold of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s “Andaz-e Guftagu Kya Hai?” with a scathing critique of Firaq. I was drawn to the concerned essay “Urdu Ghazal ki Rivayat aur Firaq” more for the distinct approach than its actual content.

I left the valley to study at Jamia Millia Islamia in the scorching heat of Delhi’s summer in 2008. Like many other adolescent Kashmiris, my transition to Delhi bankrupted me of all my innocent reveries. I immersed in the debates on the nature of the scientific method, IR theories, nuclear strategy and the related themes with a corresponding loss of the dreamer in me. Fortunately, at one annual Jamia book fair, I came across Faruqi’s books. The torch of love for literary deities was suddenly relit in me, lending back my dreams and the ensuing passion.

A distinguished critic, poet, fiction writer, lexicographer and a literary theorist, he was at his best in She`r-e Shor-Angez, the award-winning multivolume study of Mir Taqi Mir; Saheri, Shahi, Sahibqirani, four-volume path-breaking work on Urdu Dastaan and unrivalled contribution in ushering modernism in Urdu literature through his literary periodical Shabkhoon. This doyen of Urdu literature passed away on December 25, leaving behind an envious corpus of world-class literature.

Unarguably, one of the greatest Urdu literary critics, it is his novel Ka’i Chand thay Sar-e Asman (The Mirror of Beauty) that introduced him to the non-literary world.  In its 900-odd pages, history and fiction are delicately woven with a hint of nostalgia about the glorious past of Indo-Muslim culture, its self-sufficiency, imperial pomp, elite glamour and eventual doom. The protagonist, Wazir Khanam— with sensational beauty, spurring grit and magnetizing grace— is a metaphor to tell the story of the rupture of a tradition in its encounter with brute imperial power. The story is set in the declining years of the Mughal Empire and captures the essence of this transformation through the eyes of historical characters largely drawn from the nobility. By making Wazir Khanum’s life, her sensual vagaries, momentous losses and occasional gains essential to the story, the book deals with the human condition in its totality. Without sacrificing her remarkable individuality, she treads the cultural landscape within its boundaries through incredible wit and an acute passion for life.

The original Urdu text is mellifluous and gripping. Having self-translated the novel into English does not prevent the loss of the cultural nuances that English, as a language, is simply incapable of expressing. The limitations of syntax, idiom and usage make English ill-equipped to describe the modes of thought, situations and perceptions that are alien to English way of life. The language one speaks deeply influences the way one thinks about reality. Language is the cornerstone and the nourishing mother of a culture. It alone has the capacity to express the thought patterns, ways of life and epistemic nuances that constitute the warp and woof of any group identity. This reality is evident by looking at the ‘loss’ of cultural nuances and subtleties of mannerism in the English translation of the novel.

Unsurprisingly, Wazir Khanam is born in Delhi to a Kashmiri father. The novel paints a vivid description of Kashmir’s cultural landscape, arts and crafts, cold zephyrs emanating from Dal, and the debilitating conditions of infrastructure that takes the characters of the novel three days to travel from Srinagar to Budgam!

Over the years I’ve come to believe that Faruqi’s Ka’i Chand thay Sar-e Asman and Intizar Hussain’s Basti are isomers: narrating and living a syncretic Indo-Muslim culture, its steep decline and how divided people’s memories juggle with the present and their shared past. While Faruqi’s work is set in the fag end of the Mughal Empire, Basti is set in the events succeeding the Partition of the subcontinent. The pair of novels is the pinnacle of Urdu storytelling in their most evocative telling of our past.

Basti, a novel about the search for a bygone idyll, is reminiscent of Kashmir’s own past. The degenerating politics of Kashmir evokes a sense of Zakir’s nostalgia in any Kashmiri. Zakir, the novel’s protagonist, laments,  “How quickly the purity of our days was lost, how quickly the coolness fled from our nights?” For Kashmiris, quickly after the partition.

Author teaches at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace & Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.