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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Lives of the Poets

The grand old man of Urdu literature, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, on a new translation of his stories, reinstating the past in the present, and why India can’t afford to forget.

Written by Amrita Dutta |
Updated: November 1, 2014 2:36:20 am
The grand old man of Urdu literature, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. The grand old man of Urdu literature, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi.

Book: The sun that rose from the earth
Author: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 624
Price: Rs 799

The new book (a translation of Savaar aur Doosray Afsaney by the author) includes stories on the great Urdu poets, from Mushafi to Mir and Ghalib, but also of their time. What were you trying to say about them?

I was not trying to write about the poets as such. I was writing about the culture, and the literary and the social mixture that Delhi and the Indo-Muslim culture was at that time, and continued to be, for a long time — till 1857. The poets  were an excuse to foreground the culture: how people loved, how they fought, what they thought of poetry, what they thought about the world. The story on Ghalib recalls the suffering of the common man in 1857, and what young men of the time thought of politics, of foreign rule, and how they saw a disruption taking place. The later stories focussed on the 18th century, which is the most maligned period of Indian history, considered a time of great debauchery and decline. For the British and the comprador historians, this decline was  an excuse to justify English incursion into India. Even Marx was so foolish as to say that the British were unconscious tools of history, who by intervening in India pushed it towards modernism. But Delhi remained vibrant till the 19th century, and had 1857 not happened, we would have been able to see that continuity. That’s why I put Delhi and the 18th century in the foreground. That continues to be my project: to recall and reinstate that past and confirm it before people’s eyes today, those who have no idea of the riches of pre-Modern Urdu literature.

In India today, history is fiercely contested, and there is the insinuation that all of its glory rests in a pre-Muslim past.

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I contest it, I deny it. I deny that there has been something like a 1,000-year rule of the foreigner in this country. Many of us came just for trade, like the Arabs in the south. They came much before Islam did. They settled there, and married there, and they began to speak Malayalam of which Arabic is an important component. Much later, did they convert to Islam. So it’s not that they were foreigners raiding and plundering like the English. How many Englishmen remain in India, and how many Muslims remain? Also, if you propose to cancel a substantial part of your history and say that it is false or that it is not yours, then how do you reach back to the other past? Once you have erased a whole bridge that is 1,000 years old, you cannot really go back to the past. When I go abroad, I tell people that I represent a much richer tradition than you have: I am a Musalman, I am a Hindu, I have been influenced by Sanskrit, by Persian, by Arabic, and later by English. I am a combined creation of a number of traditions. You can’t cancel this out, you might think you can, but what you are wearing today, the language you are speaking today, all this is because a certain number of people settled here and made it their home, and enriched it and were enriched by it. [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi was quoted as saying that because Karna was born outside his mother’s womb, it proves that we had genetic science at the time of the Mahabharata. Even if you had that, what does it mean? Are you able to clothe your children now, are you able to educate them? By saying the Vedas are the word of God or that there was genetic science before, it doesn’t help me. It helps me to say that the Vedas are my heritage and that I am here to enrich myself from them.

What was poetry to Delhi and its people? By speaking of the poetry of love, were they also speaking of their world?

Writing about love or about words enabled you to understand the world better. In Delhi or anywhere in the Indo-Muslim culture, it was a way of life. Because it was mostly an oral activity and literacy was not so common. You needn’t be literate or have gone to school to be a poet, you had to be able to speak and understand the language, know its nuances and traditions, and you should have sat with some ustad who would have corrected/taught you. Poetry was not an activity of literature, but of life. It was considered a noble activity. The disjuncture between life and literature is so great today, and has been for the last 150 years, that people don’t appreciate that poetry can be a part of life. Here it was, it was life itself.


Till Savaar, you had been a poet, a formidable critic but you hadn’t explored fiction much. So, what changed in 1997?

When I was young, in the early 1950s, the Urdu literary scene was dominated by fiction writers, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishna Chander, Ismat Chugtai and Manto saab, and many others. I too had ambitions to become a short story writer. But by the time I passed out of university in 1955 (after an MA in English), I realised there was something lacking in me, and in the Urdu literary scene: and that was how to discriminate among poets, and not just talk about the message of their work. How to develop the rules that will help the reader understand the differences between Ghalib and Iqbal and Mir? I thought there should be literary criteria and principles, not linked to any particular social or  political programme. I was laying down the rules of the game.

TS Eliot and his writings showed me the way. He was linking the past to the present, beginning with the Elizabethans, the 16th century dramatists and poets, and rehabilitating John Donne, who was unheard of in the Victorian era. He was creating a European consciousness. It appealed to me because I realised that Urdu literature, too, should not be imagined in a vacuum. As if, it had only a link to an Iranian tradition, and there was no field, no hinterland from which Urdu was being fed. I felt I should be able to locate Urdu literature in a larger context, in an Indian context, in a Hindu context—by which I mean, an Indian tradition. That seemed to me to be more urgent than writing fiction. And there was also the magazine, Shabkhoon (started in 1966).


1997 was the 200th anniversary of Ghalib’s birth. I had been writing on Ghalib all this while. For a change I thought I would write a story, in which I’d bring other things: 1857 and its aftermath, my own background as a child growing up in Azamgarh in 1939-40. I was seven years old during the Quit India movement, but I remember very well the oppression of the freedom fighters then. I transferred that to 1857. So I mixed up a lot of things, my own upbringing, my feelings for the place I come from, and how much my people did for the country — regardless of whether they were Hindu or Muslim.

Tell us about Mushafi, one of your favourite poets.

Here is a person who wrote so much but was condemned by 19th century critics as not being original enough. They never stopped to think that in the Persian or Arabic tradition, far less the Sanskrit tradition, originality does not matter at all. His work would have been lost but for the fact that his divans were printed in the 1990s and 2000s. Even then, people hardly read him. But since I was hungry to know about my past, where I came from, where my literary perceptions fit in the larger picture, I came to Mushafi. I found in him a kindred spirit. He had the same free ideas about god and religion, and he was absolutely confident about his literary talent.

In the 1980s, you embarked on a study of Mir, and you discovered an entirely new poet.

Mir was extremely unfashionable, one of those gods you put in a high corner of your house, but don’t stop to converse with. In the early 1940s, the discovery of his autobiography and his literary biography of Urdu poets revived an interest in him. By the time, the stereotype of Mir had become so fixed, that an important early critic said of the poet that he was never known to smile, that if he did, it was by mistake, so steeped he was in sadness and misery. But when I read him again and again, I came to understand the vitality of the person. Ghalib says: “Although my heart is bleeding because of the force of my desire/ My beloved does not reveal even her ankles in my dreams”. But Mir talks about sleeping with the beloved, about her naked body, he quarrels with her and calls her names. He is equally at home with god, and with human misery. It is impossible to encompass him. The only person who I can compare him to is Shakespeare.

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First published on: 01-11-2014 at 02:15:22 am

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