A bud is about to flower, and separation’s thorn embedded in the heart
If I can survive, I will see a flower filled dawn
∼ Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
I have been cleaning out closets; dusting bookshelves packed with love. Every book in this big room, every artefact, photograph, calligraphic art, assortment of pens and writing tools, pen drive and computer keyboard bears my father’s touch. I go through his collection of music CDs and cassettes. There is a lot of classical sitar, santoor and flute; there are recitations of ghazaliyat-e Hafiz, bhajan and khayal sung by Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and much more. The cassette collection will need closer inspection. A couple days ago I had removed the dust covers of my music system. I seldom use it now. I wipe the cobwebs, black dust clings to my fingers and gets under my nails. Tentatively, I load a CD. Flute and santoor flow from the speakers. I sit down.
The lahsunia vine is loaded with flowers. The lawn is an emerald green. Chrysanthemums are lined up in the driveway. Father’s dogs rush to welcome me. I am in Allahabad in the sprawling house my parents built. This is where I grew up. But the house wasn’t always like this. The front lawn used to be patchy; there were fragrant, desi gulab in the flowerbeds. My room in the front of the house was adjacent to my mother’s. My walls were sea green and hers sky blue. My little sister slept with Ammi. Father was posted in Lucknow, then Kanpur, Patna, Delhi and Lucknow again before he retired and returned to Allahabad at the age of 60.
The house was nearly complete in 1970. I remember we moved there at the very end of that year, in December most likely. Now, half a century has gone by. The house’s architecture is midway between a traditional bungalow and a modern ‘70s house. There are “attached” bathrooms but a traditional angan, verandahs in the front and adjacent to the angan. Lots of open spaces. I am not sure why father did not envisage a library or a private study for himself. He was focused on room for nishists, mahfils, gathering spaces where literati would come together and share poetry, fiction, essays. Thinking about this now, I am picturing a 35-year-old young couple who had built this house. My parents, so youthful, energetic, on the move, engrossed in their respective careers. Perhaps they did not think of a time when they would be stationary.
Father’s luggage as he transferred from one posting to another consisted of a hundred odd boxes of books and some furniture. Eventually books percolated to the Allahabad house as their transportation grew cumbersome. The shelves in the drawing room that displayed knick-knacks yielded space, then overflowed. Book racks were bought, and more racks were brought. The drawing room had no space left. Its sofas were moved to the guest room. The dining table was in the back verandah now. Mother’s special occasion crockery had no place to go until she commissioned a cupboard designed for that purpose after many years. Meanwhile, the library continued to prosper. Father, close to retirement, decided to build upstairs, a study and an adjacent room(s) for reading. The plan was executed, books were moved upstairs. Unfortunately, he hadn’t thought of how arduous it would be for him to climb stairs several times a day. Allahabad summers are brutal. The air conditioning did not prove adequate. The project was abandoned. But the problem was where would the books be accommodated, now the collection had grown even more? Mother, when irritated, would say, “I can move out to the street, let books have my room as well.”
Around the time she was getting her crockery cupboard made to order, mother decided to do something about the crowded book racks in the living room turned library. She always turned to me for advice, eagerly waiting for my annual summer visit. I suggested floor to ceiling bookshelves built into the walls, as I had seen in personal libraries elsewhere. This was a big project. It required changes to the room; two doors and one set of windows were walled off. It was done. A new wrinkle was how to reach books on the highest shelves? An aluminium stepladder was purchased. Father felt giddy and couldn’t handle a ladder. I could go on and on about the hurdles we crossed. Let me say that things settled down eventually and creativity flowed from father’s keyboard!
After retirement from government service, my father’s engagement with writing and commitment to editing the Urdu journal Shabkhoon grew deeper than before. As he settled down in Allahabad, he became a much sought-after patron, speaker and mentor to the numerous big and small literary organisations that speckled the city. My mother, an entrepreneurial educationist, also managed to rope him into taking interest in girls’ education, a cause she had championed for many decades. He unfurled the national flag in my mother’s school, delivered spellbinding, encouraging speeches, and announced scholarships.
The 1990s were winding down. A major event was the announcement of the Saraswati Samman. The Saraswati Samman is an annual award for outstanding prose or poetry literary works in any of the languages of India listed in Schedule VIII of the Indian Constitution. It was instituted in 1991 by the K. K. Birla Foundation. The inaugural award was given to Harivansh Rai ‘Bachchan’ for his four-volume autobiography. Father was awarded in 1996 for his monumental multi-volume work on Mir Taqi Mir, She’r-e Shor Angez. The samman opened floodgates to connect Urdu and Hindi writers through the medium of father’s scholarship and friendship. His books were translated into Hindi.
I had accepted a teaching position in the US in 1998 but came “home” every summer, staying as long as I possibly could. Father was staying up nights working on a big novel. Mother was concerned about his health. He had had a heart bypass surgery five years before and had given up smoking since. But he had been a heavy smoker and suffered from breathing disorders, chronic cold and constipation. My mother fretted about his long hours at work. She tried to shield him from the daily stream of visitors; chided him for accepting too many assignments. She seldom complained about her own loneliness.
As far as we knew father, hadn’t written a novel before. (He had written and published a novel in his early 20s.) He had started to write a series of fictional biographical afsanas (stories) beginning with Ghalib Afsana that had captivated Urdu’s literary world. He wrote under different pseudonyms and ultimately revealed himself (though most readers had guessed that it was none other than Faruqi sahib). One of the high points of these afasanas was the way he crafted language. A register of Urdu enriched with cultural assimilations, drawn from a spectrum of vocabulary ranging from early times to the 18th century, the golden age of Urdu poetry. It was peppered with Farsi verses; a specialised lexis of vocabulary from the arts…music, painting, poetry of the subcontinent, woven together in a richly textured prose.
The novel, Kai Chand the Sar-e Asman, was first published in 2006 to rave reviews. Subsequent editions followed. There was a big demand for a Hindi translation, then a demand for an English translation. But who would undertake the challenge of translating the thousand pages of scintillating prose, and what of the poetry? Perhaps Hindi would be possible, but English? For the Hindi edition father and his translator worked together. He went for the aural sound of the language. I had the opportunity to sit in on many sessions of this translation exercise. Father had the Urdu text open in front of him, Kranti Shukla would read out the Hindi translation. The decision to change a Perso-Urdu word for a more familiar Hindi word or a Sanskritised equivalent seemed to depend on how it sounded. I haven’t read the Hindi translation, but those who have tell me they love it. Ultimately Father himself did the English translation. He matched nuances, made decisions when to include or edit out the poetry from the prose. Mother wasn’t there to enjoy and participate in the fanfare of the launch of The Mirror of Beauty in 2013. The novel’s name was difficult to convey in direct translation because “There Were Many Moons in the Sky” doesn’t sound right in idiomatic English. “Stars” instead of “Moons” sounds better in English because it is closer to the sense of the original.
Mother left us in 2007. She caught her foot on a red-carpet fringe at a wedding reception and suffered a broken hip. The replacement surgery was done but she caught an infection. She breathed her last on October 19. My parents met at the University of Allahabad. They were married in 1955. Mother didn’t follow my father to his different postings. She lived in the Allahabad house and worked tirelessly for the cause of girls’ education. Father understood my mother’s passion. She in her turn supported Father’s ambition to write. She left behind a void that could not be filled. Her room with the sky-blue walls, deep blue floor, the solid teak bed, prayer chauki and prayer rug stayed.
Father loved dictionaries. There were shelves upon shelves of dictionaries he had collected. He generally had several dictionaries by his side when he was writing. He compiled word lists, glossaries, lexicons for his personal use. He put together lists of words that fallen into disuse. He enjoyed tracking, tracing the evolution of usages. Sometimes I was sent off to find a word in a particular dictionary. When it took me forever to find it, he would get impatient, follow me to his library, take the heavy volume from my somewhat reluctant hands but secretly relieved self, and turn to right page in a matter of seconds. His eyesight had always been weak, it grew worse with age, but he pored over pages in tiny print, chuckling when he found the right word. I would get a sharp tap on my head for being careless or lazy in searching for the right word.
He was passionate about words and usage. Rare words were like rare gems for him. Father had immersed himself in Urdu and Farsi’s classical literature. The only individual who had read the 46 volumes of the monumental Dastan-e Amir Hamza’s 50,000 pages, he had a notebook filled with rare words. His close reading of Mir’s seven divans and Musahafi’s nine, plus every Urdu poet from the 300 years of classical Urdu poetry from Muhammad Afzal’s Bikat Kahani (1625 CE) to Dagh Dihlavi (d. 1905) were under his purview as he culled rare words. The result was a collection of some 12,000 words. He kept pruning, expanding, refining the range of meanings till the very end. This was his favourite project. He named it Tazminul Lughat. He published excerpts from this work with an introduction explaining how and why he went about this labour of love. The master file of Tazminul Lughat was stored in his desktop. A copy of the current section he was working on was the laptop he carried to Delhi. When we finally mustered the courage to open his laptop, the Lughat was the last file he had edited.
Allahabad has been renamed; it’s Prayagraj. The “Civil Lines” area where our house is located is a remnant of colonial times when the lines were drawn between the old city and the new. A railway line was a convenient divider between old and new in colonial urban expansion. Streets in the Civil Lines area were named after British administrators. The street on which our house is located has been renamed a few times, as have many other streets in Allahabad. It was Hastings Road, then Nyaya Marg, then CSP Singh Marg. Whatever the name, letters, parcels, deliveries always reached here.
A year has gone by. A year of the pandemic; of irreparable losses. The surge of the delta variant coursed across the world with a pitiless force, exposing our frailties, our inadequacies. I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, my sister Baran shunted between Delhi and Allahabad. Travel was perilous; our lives connected through ether. Baran took the challenge of getting Father’s books catalogued. She cared for the three dogs, Father’s pet parrot and the birds. Now I’m here for a short period. Father had taken active interest in the maintenance of the graveyard. On my visits to the graveyard, I touch the earth where my parents’ repose. I linger, caress their gravestones, and recite the surah fatiha. Graves of family members are clustered together in one corner. He had selected the katba (inscription) on the headstones; each one of them is special. Some years ago, he had entrusted his assistant with a piece of paper with the words he wanted inscribed on his gravestone. It is the opening verse from Surah Mominun: My Lord, forgive and have mercy; You are the most merciful one.
Work in cataloguing Father’s library is ongoing. It may take another year. His personal output was phenomenal. I am embarrassed to admit that I don’t have a specific number for the monographs he wrote in Urdu. There is a long list of edited books, endless articles, translations and editorials. He was a poet, fiction writer and novelist, and a lexicographer. He was Shabkhoon’s editor. A demanding teacher, loving father and friend. As a child I began calling him Bhai (short for Bhaisahib); over the years he became Bhai to everybody, even his grandchildren. He was funny, playful, warm, a romantic at heart who loved to travel. Yesterday, marked a year since he left us:
Tu ja kar rah gaya us ki gali men ay dil ay dil
Mujhe chora hai kis ki dosti men ay dil ay dil
(You went and stayed in the other’s domain, O heart, heart
You left me for whose friendship, O heart, heart.)
As I write his words, the strains of santoor comfort me. My sister’s grandchildren romp in the lawn. The Allahabad house with its library of 40,000 books, its rows of journals lovingly curated, the Amir Hamza collection, the dictionaries are a living memory. The house is alive, the memories safe.
Mehr Afshan Farooqi is associate professor at the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia, US.