This is a collection of five long stories, rendered into English by the author himself, who first published it in Urdu in 2001 from Karachi, and, from Allahabad in 2003, with title, Savaar aur Doosray Afsanay (lit. The Rider and Other Stories). It is set in the 18th-19th centuries north India, specifically the region stretching from Delhi to Bihar. A number of major cities in this area are conjured to life in the novel in all their vivacity, hopes, despairs, accomplishments and deprivations as also literature, art, painting, bazaars, art and artisans, crafts and craftsmen, poets, critics, commentators, streets strewn with hawkers, clothes, merchants, love, romance, pottery, cutlery (though little less on food and cuisine), diseases with details of symptoms and deaths everything is brought to life in these stories. Faruqi has words and terminologies befitting the specific era, at his command, remarkably capturing the spirit of the age. One wonders if the reason Faruqi’s creative pursuits revolve around 18th-19th century north India is that he has delved deeper into the 46 volumes of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza.
Notably, he is the only person in the world to have got all 46 volumes together under one roof, in his personal collection, something no library, no university in the world has. Or linked to Faruqi’s extensive explorations about Mir (1722–1810), and his creative outputs. It would be appropriate to point out here that Faruqi brought out a four-volume study of Mir titled Sher Shor Angez (1991–93), and got the prestigious ‘Saraswati Samman’ (1996) for the same book. It was this era which witnessed the flourishing of Urdu. There have been raging controversies around the question of Urdu/Hindavi/Rekhta/Hindustani/Hindi and Nagri (now known as ‘Hindi’). Faruqi’s own research on the issue resulted in book, Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (OUP, 2001; also in Urdu). Whether or not there is any ostensible link or continuity between Faruqi’s criticism and his fictional endeavours, it has to be acknowledged that his stories provide brilliant insights about India’s history and culture. At one point in the volume under review, he says, ‘It can be said that much of the history of Hindustan in the eighteenth century is the history of treason and treachery and betrayal’ (p. 338).
Of the five long stories in the volume under review, at least one is almost the length of a novel. Almost all the stories are long short-stories (taweel afsanay, or novelette). At the same time, the characters in these stories also bear proximity to certain features of the biographies (profiles or khaaka) of Mir, Ghalib (1797–1869), Mushafi (1747–1824), and many others. It is through the lives of these poets that Faruqi paints vivid pictures of the given era. These stories are very similar in tone and tenor to Faruqi’s epic novel Kayee Chand Thay Sar-e-Asman (2006, rendered into English as The Mirror of Beauty, 2013). The opening story of the book, ‘Bright Star, Lone Splendour’, is a pen-portrait of Ghalib. In Urdu, Faruqi had published it as Ghalib Afsana (1997), with the pseudonym, Beni Madho Ruswa, who is actually the character who narrates the whole story. The British retributive atrocities in 1857, orphans a young Rajput, Ruswa, having roots in Azamgarh. He reaches Kanpur, from where he travels to Delhi, in order to meet Ghalib. Almost all the five stories have characters with ‘Hindu names’who are well-versedin Persian, and Urdu, and are great fans of the accomplished Urdu poets of their age.
The second story, ‘The Rider’, is a depiction of the urban life in 18th century Delhi. This is a little more symbolic and metaphoric than this. The opening lines of the story suggest the eroding hegemony of the Mughals. Its protagonist, Khairuddin, an alumnus of Delhi’s Madrasa Rahimiya, and then a teacher of Madrasa Ghaziuddin, begins to tell the story in these symbolic words, ‘The flame of my little lamp was dim; or should I say it was smoky, tremulous like a worm?… The word that I used doodi, is a medical term to describe a patient’s weak pulse’(p. 79). He later ended up an inconsolably disillusioned man writing poetry with the pen name Ismat, as Ismat Jahan was his love interest. At the end of the story, one realizes these are indicative of precarious times that prevailed in Delhi in the 18th century.
The third story takes us to the great poet Mir and his age. The fourth story, ‘The Sun that Rose From the Earth’ takes us to yet another great Urdu poet Mushafi. The orphaned son Darbari Mal Vafa, an aspiring poet, discovers and tells the story about Mushafi, as told by Mushafi’s widow Hayat-un-Nisa Begam, alias Bhoora Begum. The story indirectly tells a ‘comprehensive history’ of pre-1857 Lucknow. This encounter of Vafa with Hayatun Nisa in 1825 carries some resemblance to a great Urdu novel, Umrao Jan (1899) of Mirza Hadi Ruswa (1857–1931) wherein Hadi Ruswa is in long, interesting conversations with Umrao. One doesnt learn Ghalib’s life from the story about him as much as one learn about Mushafi. This could simply be attributed to the fact that while Ghalib’s life is well-known to everyone, there is very little that people commonly know about Mushafi’s life. Interestingly, Faruqi’s Ghalib in the afsana, and his Ghalib in his novel, Kayee Chand Thay Sar-e-Asman (2006) are different. In the novel, Ghalib’s humane frailties are more explicit, which are not there even in the Hali’s Yadgar-e-Ghalib. Faruqi’s protagonist Beni Madho Ruswa remarks, ‘…the main service he [Hali] did…was to establish his [Ghalib] personality as a lively, witty, dynamic, erudite and generous individual’ (p. 71).
Interestingly, the narrators of the three stories, viz., Beni Madho Ruswa, Darbari Mal Vafa, and Khairuddin, all remain unmarried, and their lives are soaked in poetry. Though, each story is standalone, yet they are not entirely disconnected with each other, because these stories are reflective of specific moments in history and culture of the region they represent. One wonders why Faruqi does not bring in the Urdu literary culture of Calcutta and Hyderabad in his stories. Even the Urdu literary culture of Azimabad (Patna) does not get adequate description, even though he has written a very well-researched essay on Shad Azimabadi (1846–1927), and his protagonist, Vaf describes the boat journey (in AD 1825) from Patna to Allahabad, in a brilliant way (p. 370).
Faruqi, the critic, is someone who should not be expected to refrain from giving his well informed judgements in literary criticism, even in his fiction. Thus, his protagonist Vafa says, ‘Mir Taqi was, by all accounts, greater than the rest, but my heart seems to find its home in the poetry of Shaikh Mushafi sahib’ (p. 395). In Faruqi’s depiction of colonial North India, British (firangis), find very unfavourable representations. For instance, Mushafi says to his wife, ‘Bhoora begam, had there been justice, there would be no Firangi here, no martyrdom for Tipoo Sultan, nor would a man like me, peerless in his times, wander here and there, making one of the night and the day, just for a piece of coarse barley bread and an earthen cup of cool water’ (p. 419). Mushafi ‘disliked the Firangis as interlopers in our land.’ He didn’t like their military tactics which he saw as ‘based on fraud more than anything else like military superiority’ (p. 452). What Mushafi, ‘resented most was the Firangi’s looting the wealth of Hind, his dispossessing or draining away the power of our kings and rulers, and the pride and the hauteur of the Firangi bordering on insolence. They believe that they are superior to us in every way, even in religion/’ (p. 454). Clearly, there is a disdain against and disapproval of the Firangi superiority.
The Lucknow of the early decades of 19th century is described thus: ‘There was no hospital royal or private, in the city. There were few Firangi practitioners whom the native populace, especially the poor, never consulted for fear of losing their dharma, or being prescribed medications with alcohol or pork as their ingredients. Hakims there were aplenty, and fewer vaids, but still quite a few. The medical practitioner never visited patients in their homes, unless they knew them very well’ (p. 395). Through a fictionalized literary history, Faruqi also writes the intellectual history of the era. Mushafi, for example is represented as having disdain for ‘needless display of Arabic and Persian in Hindi and disliked pedantry even more’
Regarding the question of religious and sectarian identities in the era, we find some significant discourses. Darbari Mal Vafa says, ‘I was not a devout Hindu, or a devout anything, except a student trying to understand my hero, one of the greatest poets of Hind [Mushafi]. I did follow the usual rites and customs, some of them clearly modelled on the practice of Muslims, many of the rest handed down from generation to generation over centuries’ (p. 459). Vafa is told by Bhoora Begum, ‘In those days and among those people, there was no special feeling about being Muslim or non-Muslim. They were people first, scholarly people, poets, artists. It didn’t matter if Mirza Qateel was a convert from Hindu to Muslim. It didn’t matter that Tika Ram Tasalli or your own father were Hindu…. [Mushafi] practised no religion in a formal, ritualistic sense; he did believe quite firmly that all human beings and their beliefs came from one source. You may call it a Sufistic idea if you wish. But he was no Sufi either’ (pp. 450–51).
The stories are embellished with apt couplets corroborating certain episodes in the lives of the poets concerned, though for a reader like me, the Urdu version is more delicious than its English rendering.
Mohammad Sajjad is Professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University (India). He has published two books: Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours (Routledge, 2014), and Contesting Colonialism and Separatism: Muslims of Muzaffarpur (Primus, 2014).