By Nikhil Kumar
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
(30-09-1935 to 25-12-2020)
How does one find the language to write about one like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi? He would not tell us for that was not his problem surely. Was he a giant, a doyen, a colossus, a paragon of all things literary, a virtuoso, a phenomenon, and his death brought the end to an era? I wane in choosing these stultifying absolutist phrases for him—he might, in a way, be them, but he is much else besides.
Like Umberto Eco, he started writing fiction early, and his novel was serialized in a Meerut based magazine Meyar. Thereafter, he did not write fiction till he was over 60. Eco picked up again at 50. In the intervening period Faruqi sahab qualified for the Civil Services and joined the Postal Department, started a literary magazine—Shabkhoon (surprise attack by night), wrote poetry, understood Urdu, its milieu, its literary presuppositions, its forbears, its conventions and ambitions, and wrote copiously about it. The impact Shabkhoon had in shaping the debates in Urdu, in discovering and promoting new (and old) writers, ultimately redefined the possibilities of the language itself. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Faruqi sahab, in running Shabkhoon for forty years, may have ended as one of the greatest literary editors to have lived.
Once in a conversation, he said answering my question that of all his work, his fiction will last the longest, and criticism the least. I disagreed. Life can be evanescent, not his writing. When he erupted on the literary scene, his criticism was a breath of fresh air. In the Urdu literary milieu, the writer is as important as the interpreter. When Faruqi sahab teased out many meanings from one she’r, he was following a classical tradition. A lay reader might complain that he is thrusting meanings on the she’r, but he was unwadding rarefied meaning, encrusted by time and colonially induced amnesia. Faruqi sahab was an astounding interpreter, revealing deeper, interconnected cultural connotations seen in his work famously on Mir (Sher-e Shor Angez) and Ghalib (Tafhim-e Ghalib, Ghalib Par Char Tahrirein), and less known on Iqbal (Khurshid ka Saman-e Safar), Akbar Allahabadi (Akbar Allahabadi par Ek Aur Nazar) and others.
In the beginning though, he was seen as a rabble-rouser. His aesthetic principles are contained in She’r Ghairshe’r Aur Nasr (poetry, non-poetry, and prose) and Tanqidi Afqar (Critical Thoughts); the basic idea being the verse should have more meanings than what is manifested on the surface. If in the peeling off, the verse is found wanting, it was not his wont to leave things unsaid. These tools deployed with devastating precision on poets of great prominence such as Firaq and Faiz, exhort us towards more ways of seeing. We cannot disregard his criticism of them as haughty froideur but must see it as demanding a higher plane of linguistic fervour and a deeper engagement with thought.
Faruqi’s fiction comprises seven stories—one published in May 2020 called Fani Baqi, and one novel Kayi Chand the Sar-e Asman, superbly translated in English as The Mirror of Beauty. Being the main force behind the rediscovery of the Dastan, he has five volumes of analysis (Sahiri, Shahi, Sahibqirani: Daastan-e Amir Hamza ka Muta’la) on the Hamza cycle (published in forty-six volumes by Nawal Kishore Press). The fifth volume came out a couple of days before he was infected by the coronavirus. He had originally planned to write in total 12 volumes, but that was not to be. He also had a dictionary of rare words in the offing, the final draft of which he had finished. In the final analysis, Faruqi sahab’s body of work as a critic, as a literary historian, fiction writer, poet, translator, the reviver of Dastan, and as a scholar, would measure up to any other literary figure in Urdu or in India. Perhaps one could best describe his work and bid him farewell with his own words: mujh se shikasta-pa se hai shahar ki tere aabru/chhod gaye mere qadam naqsh-e kamal har taraf (The prestige of your city owes to the one with broken feet like me/ My feet have left the marks of dexterity in every field).
Nikhil Kumar is a freelance writer.