The Mirror of Beauty | Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Portrait of a vanished time

Milan Kundera observes somewhere that the novel does not write a society’s history. Its overwhelming concern is, rather, with the existential condition of the individual. Philosophical discourse is not part of its provenance, though its characters may engage in philosophy where the latter is not the object of novelistic intention, but only an element of its strategy, to reveal tellingly some aspect of the character’s persona.

In his masterwork, The Mirror of Beauty, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi seems to have found a middle ground. It is a novel as much about Wazir Khanam—a stunning beauty of infinite elegance, grace, dignity and gravitas—as about Indo-Muslim culture in its heyday and during its precipitous decline, mostly at the hands of the British in 19th century India, but partly also because of the sapped energies of the late Mughals.

Faruqi, however, does not turn his protagonist into a monochromatic or, at best, two-dimensional character divested of all personality, volition and selfhood. His substantial knowledge of world literature in easily half-a-dozen languages, compounded by his uncannily intuitive sense of all the nuances and intricacies of the poetics of good fiction, enables him to bring the culture and the character so deftly together that neither can survive without the other.

The Mirror of Beauty: Hamish Hamilton, 984 pages, Rs 899
The Mirror of Beauty: Hamish Hamilton, 984 pages, Rs 899

Central Asian culture, transplanted to India by the Mughals with an ecumenical absorption of native Indian customs and conventions, is enacted through Wazir Khanam and a fairly extensive cast of characters, some from the lower classes and in subservient roles, but most drawn from the nobility—indeed some of them historical personages—and in commanding positions.

Although fictionalized, Wazir Khanam is a historical character. She was the mother of the Urdu poet Dagh Dehlavi. Born sometime in early 19th century Delhi, Wazir’s ancestors lived in Kishangarh, Rajputana, until the miniature painter Mian Makhsusullah moved to Kashmir. Still later, his two grandsons, Daud and Yaqub, moved to Farrukhabad and Delhi, with a brief stopover in their ancestral Rajputana.

Wazir comes through as an individual minutely conscious of her unassailable erotic powers over men. But she knows how to restrain herself from riding roughshod over her drooling admirers, schooled as she is in the courtesies and mores, and with a perfect regard for the requirements and limits of her culture. Sprightly, self-willed, unwilling to submit to domesticity, full of wit and subtle humour, with a passion for life and the demands of her flesh, she never oversteps those limits, yet manages to keep her individuality intact.

Mistress of three men (Englishman Marston Blake in the employ of Company Bahadur; Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, a close relative of the poet Ghalib; and Agha Mirza Turab Ali), hoping some day to rise to the status of wife, she is singularly unlucky as the lives of all three are snuffed out prematurely. Blake meets his end in Jaipur at the hands of a frenzied mob; the Mirza is done in by thugs; while the public hanging of the nawab owes in no small measure to the humiliation the Resident to the State of the Company Bahadur, Nawab William Fraser Sahib, suffered at having lost the affections of Wazir to the nawab (not content with his burgeoning seraglio of half-a-dozen desibibis and numerous boy-lovers, Fraser wanted to add Wazir to his harem as well). Her fourth wooer, none other than the Mughal prince and heir apparent Mirza Fathul Mulk Bahadur, who finally bestows on her the much longed for dignity of becoming a legally wedded wife, dies suddenly in 1856, just a year before the sun was to set irrevocably on the Mughal empire, or whatever was left of it amid the steadily encroaching power of the English.

Something of an epic in its expansiveness, The Mirror of Beauty defies any attempt even to enumerate its tantalizing wealth, much less to adequately discuss it in a few hundred words. It would be tantamount to attempting “to see a world in a grain of sand" or describing “eternity in an hour". The whole way of life of 18th and 19th century India is gathered in the novel’s encyclopaedic sweep. One can literally assemble countless inventories of manners, ceremonies, festivals, fabrics, jewellery, arts and crafts, arms and weaponry, you name it. The description of Wazir’s attire at her first visit to Nawab Shamsuddin is itself spread over four pages, and that of his palatial residence in Daryaganj takes up over five.

Some individuals defy our notions of human possibility and limit. Faruqi is one such individual. A civil servant in the postal department until his retirement, he accomplished in letters what few are able to in educational institutions and literary academies. A poet, a critic, a theorist of literature, a fan and translator of detective novels, a polymath, with a profound knowledge of music and painting—the list of his achievements is endless.

As if his studies of Ghalib and Mir, his incisive comments about the nature of fiction, his insightful forays into lexicography and prosody, and, lately, his three-volume critical work on the Urdu dastan (cycle of tales), undoubtedly a stunning contribution to world literature, were not enough to leave ordinary mortals breathless over his vast erudition and creativity, he has achieved in a single novel what writers toil a lifetime to achieve, but rarely do: the brilliant portrait of a vanished time.

Faruqi came to fiction rather late in his career. Some 10 years ago, Urdu readers were literally stunned by the appearance of about half-a-dozen short stories, all dealing with the lives and circumstances of major Urdu poets, all penned by different authors whose names had not been encountered before, and all bearing the marks of an accomplished writer. Eventually, Faruqi owned these literary gems as the product of his craftsmanship. He published them in a single volume, Sawar Aur Doosray Afsanay (The Rider And Other Stories). While readers were still reeling from the stunning beauty of these stories, a treasure trove of cultural riches broke upon their senses with a crashing force—his gargantuan novel Ka’i Chand the Sar-e Asman (The Mirror of Beauty in its English reincarnation).

The Mirror is not a translation. It is a reworking in English of the Urdu original, but in its main events it rarely, if ever, drifts away from the original. The entire story is carried over intact into English. And Faruqi alone could have accomplished this formidable feat.

The characters of a bygone age, their every breath and movement steeped in the unmistakable ambience of a self-sufficient but, ultimately, doomed culture, with its penchant for high living, pleasure, allusion and poetry, required an idiom commensurate with their times and cultural personality. The stylized English invented by Faruqi—notwithstanding its few infelicitous contemporary “heys" and “girlies"—gives the novel its razor-sharp edge of authenticity.

India should be rightly proud that two of the greatest living Urdu writers, both recipients of the Saraswati Samman—Faruqi and Naiyer Masud, a scholar and short-story writer—make their home in its bosom. And Penguin, equally, should be congratulated for publishing them both in the same year (Masud’s The Occult, Seemiya in its original Urdu, will appear later this year).

The author is professor emeritus of Urdu literature and Islamic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US.

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