Hardback: 600 pages Penguin Books India (2014) Language: English (Translated by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi from his own urdu short stories collection سوار اور دوسرے افسانے)
UK: Amazon.co.uk, AbeBooks
PK: Paramount Books, Libert Books, Bookworm.pk
IN: SapnaOnline, Amazon.in
In his latest work, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi brilliantly spins stories of 18th- and 19th-century Urdu literati.
A RICH and lovingly crafted tapestry of longish tales, critic-turned-novelist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s latest book, The Sun That Rose From the Earth, is hefty, 600-odd pages of a connected narrative, offering a dazzling variety which few novels, let alone short story collections provide. Five longish tales which can also be read as components of a longer, broken narrative flow into each other effortlessly so that by the end of the book, you cannot decide if it is one story you have read or more.
The lives of poets and literati in the 18th- and 19th-century milieu of Delhi and its environs form the material of the short stories, but then this is just the beginning. The biographical details are sketched out with such fulsome details that one derives a critical pleasure from reading the book: the kind of intellectual robustness which reminds one of the literary spirit of the esteemed Dr Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the Poets or Muhammad Husain Azad’s Ab-e-Hayat, which Intizar Husain insists on reading as a sort of novel in the making. This is not surprising in a book which takes
its dramatis personae to include a distinguished cast of Mir Taqi Mir, Mushafi Ghulam Hamdani, Ghalib and Abdul Hayy Taban. In a less dexterous writer’s hand, this matter would have turned pedantic and dull. But in Faruqi’s hands, the critical acumen is retained and becomes one strand out of the many with which the narrative is woven.
One of the most respected figures in contemporary Urdu literature for his erudite literary criticism, Faruqi is no stranger to fiction. Known for his modernistic stance and learned interpretation of Ghalib, he broke new ground with his four volumes on exegesis of Mir’s selected poetry and then single-handedly established the poetics of the dastan which had become a victim of neglect.
Farqui surprised the literary world by his foray in the realm of the novel with the marvelous Kai Chand Thay Sar-e Aasman, which he himself translated into English as The Mirror of Beauty. The Sun That Rose From the Earth stories, too, carry the same stamp of genius that mark his criticism and fiction, and cover new ground. Originally published in Urdu, they created a sensation. I remember when the first story was published in Shabkhoon, the literary journal Faruqi edited from Allahabad; it was done under the pen name of Umar Sheikh Mirza. But this was a tale few were ready to believe and there was much speculation regarding its author. Soon Faruqi’s authorship was established and the stories eventually appeared under the title Sawar Aur Doosray Afsanay: truly a modern classic. Published in English as The Sun That Rose from the Earth, the stories have once again been translated by Faruqi.
The individual lives of the poets are described in fanciful detail with great imagination and intellectual fervour but the real character is the cultural capital of Delhi; the seat of political and cultural power, and a great centre of learning which draws talented people from all around. As a large supporting cast of many characters move through the pages — like the multitude thronging the crowded bazaars of a burgeoning metropolis — we get a sense of the rich and varied culture of North India, associated with the Indo-Persian, and later Urdu poetry moving and breathing like a living character. More than a richly described background, the very atmosphere takes on the attributes of a powerful character in a fictional world. The book breathes and moves with the spirit of this culture which is not so much described as evoked to show its enlivened presence.
In the opening tale, ‘Bright star, lone splendour’ a fictive but apparently all-but-real narrator fulfills a lifetime dream when he encounters the entirely real and justly celebrated Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. The narrative invokes the tazkirahs and other such stories of famous poets from that time and age. Reading it one gets the sense that Faruqi has perfected a technique. He takes biographical and historical material from the lives of the poets and infuses them with imagination.
The young Rajput in this story is a convenient vehicle for revealing the author’s all-encompassing enthusiasm for Ghalib — the poet as well as the person. And in this process the Rajput acquires a life of his own, and the circumstances of his life move us as we read of his distinguished lineage, and how his family was destroyed in the upheaval of 1857. The story conjures up Ghalib and the turbulent age with enough force that even a shelf-full of Ghalibiana cannot hope to achieve. Mir and Mushafi are observed in later stories through an entirely different lens, stories which are similar in spirit but different in technique.
Knowing his subject well and having perfected his technique, Faruqi can take liberties with his storyline which would have been deadly in the hands of a less skilled writer. Faruqi can sometimes overload the story with period detail. ‘Bright Star, Lone Splendour’ opens with details of the Rajput lineage and its background while the protagonist’s birth is discussed on page nine.
Some readers may become impatient with this much detail but for Faruqi this is an essential component of his narrative style. As the story draws to a close we are reminded that earlier events are being recorded by the narrator in his twilight years yet everything is still vivid to him and dream-like. It is obvious that language is an essential element in achieving this quality. It is at once many-layered and, at times, somewhat quaint in keeping with the sense of historicity. So we find that in the same story, a character is respectfully addressed as “Exalted Presence”.
Persian poetry forms an essential part of the background in ‘The Rider’ and we read: “The breezes that blew so pleasantly through the lanes and bazaars of Delhi resonated anyway with the poetry of Mirza Bedil, his disciple Achal Das, his friend Muhammad Afzal Surkhush, and younger poets like Anand Ram Mukhlis, Mirza Mazhar Jan-e Janan and scores of others. The winds wafted away the poetry to far-off places.”
Faruqi provides his language with a sonorous and supple quality and at the same time gives his phrases an Indian touch without making them quaint or Oriental in manner. And because he is so well grounded in his own culture, he can play with concepts and take the title of his story about Ghalib from the haunting sonnet by John Keats, a lone star in a different tradition.
‘Bright Star, Lone Splendour’ reads like a personal testimony. However the poetic worlds of Mir and Mushafi are brightly coloured and sensuous in a different style. Mir is described in very simplistic terms by Maulvi Abdul Haque in his selections from the works of the great poet, almost like somebody whining and crying all the time in a rather monotonous simplicity. Such views are challenged in Faruqi’s literary criticism such as Sher-e-Shor Angez, but it is fiction where Haque comes alive as a great human figure, and what more can one say of Mushafi who seems to come alive on the page.
The stories come to their grand finale in the enigmatically entitled ‘Time compression’ but then the tale describes exactly what it promises: a Borgesian incident from the annals of Urdu poetry which must have been true. This is the only tale which is not taken from the author’s Urdu collection Sawar but appeared later and separately as a long tale. Historical detail colours the background of a miracle of time and the classical Urdu poet’s life provides for the occasion. Like the other stories in the book, this one too is savoured and relished by the reader. It has been said of fiction that all but the names and dates are true, in contrast to history in which only the names and dates ring true. Faruqi has taken this a step further as even the dates and, at least, some of the names are true, and what is not true, is fashioned out of the truth.
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi