Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (1935-2020)

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (1935-2020)

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a leading writer and scholar of Urdu, passed away in December.  

The last time I saw Shamsur Rahman Faruqi was in early December. Suffering from post Covid complications, his body was in a bad shape. But his mind was alert. My brother read to him the Malfuzat of Baba Farid and Faruqi sahib’s own poetry. He listened and responded, with feeble exclamations or nods. He himself recited for us verses from Persian poetry, Mushafi, Mohammad Alvi, Ahmad Mustaq, Meer Anees, but mainly those of Meer. One could not but admire a man who could not even eat two spoons full of solid food, yet took nourishment from words uttered hundreds of years back.

We were hopeful of Faruqi sahib’s improvement and were praying fervently. His voice was coming back. Till the end came suddenly, on 25 December, he continued to give us love and hugs and verses filled with sorrow and joy.

He had strong likes and dislikes. In October last year, I sent him several qawwalis of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Jafar Hussain Badayuni, but he responded that they were not his favourites. Farid Ayaz was. Ankit Chadha, the late daastango, had given me a recording of the poet Majaz reciting kuch tujh ko khabar hai hum kya kya ae sorish-e daruan bhool gaye (do you even know, oh tumultuous times, what I have had to forget’) which I sent Faruqi sahib. He responded that he did not like Majaz’s poetry, but he loved this ghazal.

Born in 1935, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi had an early bonding with literature. His grandfather was a poet and as a boy, Faruqi sahib’s father would make him recite extempore and correct him on his pronunciation. He composed his first verse at the age of seven. Around the same time, along with his elder sister, he came out with a handwritten literary magazine called Gulistan, which contained stories and poems written by both of them. He published his first story when he was in high school and his first novella, Daldal se Bahar (‘Outside the Quicksand’) was serialised in 1949-50. Some years later, he wrote Surkh Aandhi (‘Red Storm’), on religious persecution in Soviet Union. He came to know about its publication when he discovered its pages being used to wrap grocery.

After finishing school and college in Gorakhpur, he enrolled for a masters in English at Allahabad University, where he met Jamila Khatun Hashmi, whom he later married. She provided him emotional, financial and family support and left him free to indulge in literature. In 1958, he joined the Indian Postal and Telegraph Service.

In the early 1960s, the progressive movement in Urdu was in decline. The Communist Party of India was also facing an internal crisis. Faruqi sahib did not approve of the literary trend of his time, which demanded that literature should serve a particular social and political purpose. He thought it best to start a new platform for writers who wanted to walk a different path, who wanted to experiment, who thought that individuals also deserved attention in literature as against the society they were living in. Thus, in 1966 he started the aptly named Shabkhoon (‘blood of the night’, referring to a surprise attack at night). Though the magazine did carry pieces by progressives, it mainly catered to the new generation of writers. In Shabkhoon, Faruqi sahib broke old beliefs and constructed new foundations. He drew on I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot to provide literary theories for the new narratives employed by the young writers like Balraj Komal, Mohd Alvi, Zafar Iqbal, Ahmad Mustaq, and Intezar Hussain.

Simultaneously, he also felt that the classical literature in Urdu had been largely ignored and subverted in the 20th century under the influence of 19th century European romanticism. He emphasised the importance of reading a text in its own context and not imposing modern literary theories on writers who had a different notion of literature and its purpose.

Cover of the last issue of 'Shabkhoon' (2005) | Rekhta

Cover of Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman, a novel by Faruqi

While publishing a long series on Ghalib’s verses in Shabkhoon, he revisited the 18th century poet Meer and over the next twenty years came out with the four volumes of Sher-e Shor Angez (‘Soul Stirring Verses’) — a masterly work on not just Meer but on poetics, language, and literary theories of India, Iran, and Arabia. Through his work Faruqi sahib informed us that for these classical writers, poetry was first of all a craft and they therefore were less of writers and more of artists. He not only showed us our treasures but rescued them from being lost to oblivion. Like the Cambridge historian Christopher Bayly, but for different reasons, Faruqi sahib was discovering for us that north India of the 18th and 19th centuries was culturally a very rich and vibrant society. For me, this was his biggest contribution and achievement.

His other everlasting contribution was his work on daastans— tales that originated in Iran and Central Asia, finding space in manuscripts produced for Akbar’s court but attaining its full glory in the 46 volume Tilism-e Hoshruba, published by Lucknow’s Munshi Nawal Kishore Press in the late 19th century. These long tales had suffered neglect and scorn from our self-appointed guardians who distinguished good literature from bad under the modern influence of western novels and short stories. Faruqi sahib not only produced works highlighting the importance of daastans and explaining them for what they were: an oral form containing powerful narratives created through magical word power. He motivated his nephew, Mahmood Farooqui to perform the daastans, giving them a new life. It is because of Faruqi sahib that the daastans have reoccupied their place in the literary pantheon.

Faruqi sahib’s involvement with criticism had meant that writing fiction took a backseat. But an opportunity presented itself in 1997 on the occasion of the bicentennial of Ghalib when he was collecting articles for a special issue in Shabkhoon. He wrote a fictional account involving Ghalib and his times, under the pen name ‘Umar Sheikh Mirza’. (When the story was widely appreciated, he acknowledged the authorship.) He wrote other stories involving famous poets like Meer and Mushafi, ultimately culminating in the magnum opus novel Kai Chand The Sar-e Aasman (2006; translated into English in 2013 as The Mirror of Beauty). As noted by his nephew, Faruqi sahib’s fiction contained themes he had been dealing with in his criticism.

In tributes, people have mentioned that the work Faruqi sahib accomplished would normally require the whole strength of an organisation or otherwise three lifetimes. His extensive reading, and what he retained, reminds me of the Quranic verse sanuqriuka fala tansa —‘[God] will make you recite, and you will not forget’. He had equal mastery over Shakespeare as he had on Meer. He could explain the concepts of Sufism with ease, regaling us with stories from the Fawaid-ul Fawad, a biography of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, and incidents from early Islam, along with writing very modern stories taking Hindu mythology as a central theme. He would go deep into the similarities of Sanskrit and Arabic poetics, and distinguish them from Chinese and European theories. He could separate and tie imperialism, language nationalism and power struggles in the realm of culture and politics. He would not get disheartened with the loss of power in the 18th and 19th century but celebrate the period’s great cultural vibrancy.

He was not scared of death: he embraced it as soon as he reached home in Allahabad in late December. He had taught us what to live for and he taught us how to die.

Mashhood Farooqui, a civil servant, is Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s nephew.

Mashhood Farooqui
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