By Irfanullah Farooqi
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (1935-2020), easily the most iconic figure of the Urdu literary world in the past five-six decades, died of post-Covid complications on December 25 at his home in Allahabad. So many of his admirers have written obituaries that inform us of Faruqi’s unrivalled contribution to Urdu literature. Not a single one of these misses out on pointing out rather categorically how Faruqi’s death marks the end of an era, one, if I may add, created by Faruqi himself. Recently, his elder daughter Mehr Afshan Farooqi has written a moving piece that, for the most part, educates the reader on the not-so-well-known aspects of Faruqi; his love for smoking pipes and tea, his medication routine, dogs and birds as his companions etc.
While I am not someone who has read everything written by Faruqi (I wonder if anyone alive can make that claim given how much he wrote) or even a substantial portion of it, I can say this with absolute confidence that no matter how many write-ups get published on Faruqi’s legacy and the loss his death has brought, there will always be ample scope to bring in new insights. However, in what follows, I am not at all inclined towards flagging for the readers Faruqi’s hitherto unattended literary merit(s). My objective, to be honest, is far more modest. Given that we were related, I want to go back to my earliest memory of him, repeated references to his genius in my immediate family almost every other day, and meeting him (only thrice). Needless to mention, I will also highlight several exceedingly significant aspects of Faruqi as an original and uncompromising thinker/theorist that are too crucial to be overlooked by anyone who identifies herself with the world of reading, writing, and thinking.
Faruqi’s grandfather and my grandfather were real brothers. So we were cousins but, given he was 47 years older than me, I mostly referred to him as my uncle.
In the early 1990s I remember my father talking about Faruqi’s heart surgery. This was the first time I heard the name. Not long after, in 1995, I saw him for the first time.
My father, a well-trained academic in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, called him Shamsur Rahman Sahab. At a relatively young age I had been well aware of Shamsur Rahman Sahab as a relative who had cracked UPSC without being a UPSC aspirant, had read whatever he could lay his hands on, and was phenomenally intelligent and hard-working.
I was introduced to the verses of Iqbal and Ghalib at a relatively young age. Gradually I got to know about other classical poets such as Mir, Dard, Sauda, Momin, Zafar, and Dagh. My father told me about Faruqi’s commentary on some of these poets, specifically Mir, Ghalib, and Iqbal. Often he said, ‘you must read Shamsur Rahman Sahab to develop a thorough understanding of ghazal’. Several of Faruqi’s books were stacked in my father’s bookrack but I did not pick them up. Poetry was good to listen to and, once in a while, feel. I did not find myself inclined towards reading about poetry, specifically Urdu poetry. As a college student growing up under the spell of English, I was busy turning the pages of works by Dickens, Austen, Shaw, Poe and others. Faruqi’s books, therefore, remained where they were, untouched.
For my MA, I got through Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). JNU’s academic and intellectual environment left me spellbound. As a result, whenever I was home I could not talk enough about my professors from the School of Social Sciences. My father taught Arabic at JNU. Once in a while, I remember him saying, ‘You should read Shamsur Rahman Sahab. He is in a different league altogether.’ In the hope that it might pull me to his writings, my father once said, ‘Although he is a renowned figure in the Urdu world, his writings in English are no less remarkable. Faruqi for me, till then, was an Urduwallah after all. What all could someone working in the field of Urdu, I told myself, possibly write about? I thought of him as someone operating in a very narrow and restricted domain unlike my professors who were not only excellent social scientists but also knew about literature, poetry, history, philosophy, and films.
In March 2005, I chanced upon the English translation of Muhammad Husain Azad’s celebrated work Āb-e Ḥayāt, (OUP 2003). It was translated and edited by renowned Columbia University scholar Frances W Pritchett along with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. I bought the book specifically for the introduction by Faruqi titled Constructing a Literary History, a Canon, and a Theory of Poetry. I read the unusually long introduction the same day and was instantly enthralled by Faruqi’s perceptive scholarship. It was a write-up that borrowed from an astonishingly wide range of sources. Every page of that introduction informed me about Faruqi’s phenomenal grip on literary history and criticism coupled with a piercing commentary on colonialism’s workings in the domain of knowledge, culture-imperialism interface, and on writing (read documenting) as an incredibly political act in general.
After that I started reading his English writings one after another; his articles and interviews that were published in the Annual of Urdu Studies, his stunningly insightful work Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (OUP 2001), his comprehensive article on Urdu’s literary history for Sheldon Pollock’s much-cited edited volume Literary Cultures in History: Reconstructions from South Asia (2003) and so forth. A year or two later, the online repository put together by Pritchett turned out exceedingly helpful. With every writing of his that I was reading, I grew more certain of not being able to comprehend Faruqi’s scholarly genius. However, till now I had not read any of Faruqi’s Urdu works. Making sense of Faruqi’s brilliance through his English writings was akin to what Mir Taqi Mir (1730-1810) said: Ye jaagna hamaara, dekha to khwaab nikla (This waking up of ours, it was a dream after all). Having developed what could be called a markedly elementary understanding of Faruqi’s intellectual location, I wanted to meet him, perhaps just see him. In February 2011, he delivered the Ahmed Ali Memorial Lecture at Jamia Millia Islamia. I was a guest faculty at the Department of Sociology. I left everything and reached the venue considerably ahead of time. It was the day Jamia was granted minority status as mentioned by the erstwhile Vice Chancellor Mr. Najeeb Jung, who was chairing the event. On that day I saw Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, more than 15 years after that graceful Walaikum Assalaam in the corridor of Lucknow Medical College. He spoke on The Truths of Fictions and, as expected, by the end of the Lecture, I felt more uninformed. After the lecture, I had to meet him. I gathered courage, walked up to him and greeted him. I told him about my father and the next moment he asked me, ‘Abba kaise hain’ (How is your father). He asked me what I was doing and thanked me for attending the lecture. I told him how much I learned from the little I read of his writings to which he said, ‘Arey woh sab jaane do’ (Forget all that). He asked me to convey his Salaam to my father and meet him at his daughter’s house in Mujeeb Bagh.
I met Faruqi the next day. I was extremely nervous given I had done my MPhil on Faiz Ahmed Faiz and had started my PhD on Muhammad Iqbal. He did not like the former and loved the latter and in the case of an exceptionally immersed and invested mind like Faruqi’s, like and dislike were not any different for they both sprung out of forensic analysis. I entered the room saying my prayers, achingly aware of my vulnerability. However, Faruqi’s benevolence knew no limits. He appreciated whatever little I shared about my research work and interests. Within minutes I felt completely at home and we discussed a range of themes from authorial intention and artist as a political being to religion-language interplay and decline of Urdu journals. The ease with which Faruqi spoke about each of these cannot be put in words. His mind seemed like a sprawling library with thousands of books immaculately shelved and hundreds opened with utmost care. Not even once did he refer to any of his own writings. And there was an unmistakable warmth and generosity with which he gave away scraps of his wisdom. I stepped out with the resolve that I would meet him every time he visits Delhi. That was our last meeting.
After that meeting I picked up some of his Urdu works. I started with his marvellous reflection Tafheem-e-Ghalib (Understanding Ghalib) that remains the most authentic commentary on Ghalib’s poetic genius. Every couplet picked up by Faruqi is subjected to an assiduous analysis and the commentary on almost every couplet also informs the reader about earlier commentators’ take, the failing on their part and so on. Turning the pages of Tafheem one is instantly informed that a great poet (in this case Ghalib) offers the reader that faith-affirming possibility of discerning something that did not even occur to the poet. Following that I read a little bit of his momentous work She’r-e-Shor Angez, a four-volume study of Mir Taqi Mir that Faruqi presented in the face of whatever exists in Urdu literature on/about Mir. Written on the basis of a meditative study of approximately three decades, this path-breaking work bulldozed the entire Urdu literary corpus on/about Mir that reduced him to a poet of lament and sorrow. Faruqi introduced the world to Mir’s breathtaking range, as a poet who offered a couplet for every conceivable shade of human emotion or existence. I picked up several other Urdu works of his but could not finish any of them barring his acclaimed novel Kai Chand The Sare Aasmaa (2010). Reading his Urdu works turned out educative in a different way; contrary to what I took for granted, I did not know Urdu. Nonetheless, I continued reading his write-ups off and on. And whatever little I read and understood, deep down it attested to what my father always said about Faruqi’s reflections, Shamsur Rahman Sahab tahqeeq ka haq adaa kar dete hain. Kisi bhi mauzoo pe unko padhke dil mutmaeen ho jaata hai (Faruqi gives research and analysis their due. Reading him on any subject satisfies one to the brim).
My father died of Covid in July 2020. It was an absolute free fall. He passed away in less than a week from the date of his test result. Alongside many other things, this terribly abrupt and unexpected loss also meant the end of a markedly generous and unstinting supervision vis-à-vis my meanderings into the world of words. I developed a strange apprehension towards poetry. More than the fear of not understanding a couplet I trembled at the prospect of reading something profoundly intense, understanding it and not being able to share it with my father, the one person in my immediate circle who was thoroughly invested in poetry. This is when I once again turned towards Faruqi. For me, he was the only anchor left. I watched all of his lectures and discussions available online and read Mahmood Farooqi’s exceptionally lucid long essay written for a Festschrift put together in Faruqi’s honour.
I was once again desperate to meet Faruqi, this time because of the emptiness my father’s death had caused. He had conveyed his condolences on my father’s death. I was reluctant to write to him about a possible meeting given his old-age and health issues. October beginning, I wrote to him nonetheless (thanks to a relative-friend who forced me to) and he responded a day later asking me to meet him in Delhi later that month. And then when the day came, Faruqi was down with fever. I was asked to not meet him. Two days later, perhaps 16th November, his Covid test report came positive.
His condition improved and, as he expressed in a voice note sent to me, he was convinced his time had not come yet. He was discharged from the hospital but he developed mycosis and the fungal infection kept getting worse until his death on 25th December.
Faruqi’s death marks a loss that remains outside the reach of the most vivid reflections or expressive obituaries. When I think of a Faruqi-less world of Urdu literature, I think of it as one utterly deprived of that exceptionally inspiring sincerity and maddeningly creative zeal. I am referring to an intellectual sincerity that did not go unacknowledged even by staunch opponents. I personally know a few scholars who did not agree with Faruqi’s premise on a range of themes but not even one of them doubted his beyond-belief rigour and hard work that went into every sentence he wrote.
As a teacher-student, I mourn Faruqi’s death for it marks the departure of someone whose first love was reading and writing. Faruqi’s love for books was, as rightly pointed out by a good friend, his way of being. In an online interview given for Jashne-Urdu (perhaps his last), when asked, would not it be more suitable for him had he been an academic and not a bureaucrat, Faruqi responded with stunning clarity that even if he was a labourer he would have done exactly what he did. His immersion in the world of words took him beyond the binary we live with, of spare time and occupied time. And most importantly, he lived that first love of his with such a graceful quietness, away from the fleeting glory of literature festivals, the tentativeness of networking-driven talk shows and discussions. He was one of those rare luminaries who did not bow down to, borrowing from Guy Debord’s poignant title, ‘the society of the spectacle’. Thinking of him sitting in his den, joyfully indifferent to the demands of the changing world, I am reminded of Ghalib’s captivating lines:
Hai aadmi bajaaye khud ek mahshar-e-khyaal
Hum anjuman samajhte hain, khalwat hi kyun na ho
Man contains in himself a commotion of ideas
Even in solitude, he is in a gathering
However, Faruqi did not miss out on the possibilities offered by new media platforms. He was a regular at Jashn-e-Rekhta since its inception in 2015 where he spoke on Modern Urdu Ghazal, Dastangoi, Mir, Ghalib etc. By gracing the event every year, Faruqi was conveying his thoughts to an audience that, largely speaking, had not read his works or, for that matter, was into Urdu literature. In each of these sessions, Faruqi is markedly accessible and inviting for he knew who he was speaking to. It won’t be wrong to claim that through these sessions and their video recordings that have been uploaded on YouTube and watched by several thousands, Faruqi succeeded in informing a good number of people about a glorious tradition and its towering bearers.
What is truly remarkable about Faruqi’s entire writing career, something that is surprisingly missing in all the write-ups that have surfaced ever since his passing away, is a sincerity that seems was invented by him. Especially as an academic I feel it was truly remarkable how Faruqi would embark upon astoundingly scholarly pursuits simply because of his interest, an insatiable curiosity, a surging response to what Robert Browning called ‘the undone vast’. A lot of what he did on his own, given its matchless scholarly worth, cannot be done by teams of scholars. Think of the dictionary he wrote and the one he finished a little before falling sick, his work on Mir, on Dastangoi and so forth. He did not write to any organization for funding or thought of any of these as ‘projects’, the pandemic that grips academia these days. He just sat and wrote.
A literary titan like Faruqi deserves to be remembered for who he truly was. More than anything else he was a person who carried a relentless literary urge, an indomitable spirit vis-à-vis knowing and documenting. Let us not forget that he stood against the dominant literary currents for approximately three decades. The articles that he sent to be considered for publication went ‘missing’ (one of the reasons why he started his own literary magazine Shabkhoon in 1966), his reflections on criticism were dismissed as westernized, and his poetry as too abstract and not generating any emotion. But Faruqi was beyond, to borrow from Rainer Maria Rilke’s eternal lines, ‘numbering and counting’. He was ‘ripening like a tree…so unconcernedly silent’. He was single-mindedly invested in educating us about a glorious age of Urdu language and poetry and its icons. So whether we remember him as a writer, critic, lexicographer, poet, literary historian, or a translator, we essentially refer to an outstanding curator who left us.
While Faruqi’s demise has saddened the world of Urdu literature beyond words, my mind invariably goes to his study, those thousands of books stacked, few bookmarked, perhaps a
few unfinished, a chair and a table that won’t experience the same warmth ever again. If any of these could put to words their sense of loss, it would perhaps be most aptly captured by the line that marked the beginning of Faruqi’s association with the world of words, Maloom kya kisi ko mera haal-e-zaar hai (who knows my heartrending state).
*All translations are by the writer.
Irfanullah Farooqi teaches Sociology at the South Asian University.