The Arts

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Ustad Who Could Catch the Bustle in A Flower’s Scent

The acclaimed Urdu critic, poet and prose master changed the face of Urdu but also what it meant to engage with the literary in all its shapes, glorious or unsightly. Life after him means living with a slew of unfinished conversations, writes Geeta Patel. 

The language of flowers (in homage to Ghalib and Faruqi)

You happen upon them
Pleats and curlicues
Scarlet, lilac, caramel
A bouquet of secrets
scribbled absently

Flowers are poetry’s palette
Lotus midnight hands over your soul
Petalled rose harkens love’s slow fall
Tulip stillness as the heart’s quarry
in inkbrush and rhythm

Were we attuned in
A stamen’s fleeting lemon
A honeybee’s loitering thrum
An oriole’s fading scurry
A garden snail’s gummy skim
We could catch the bustle in a flower’s
scent, the small stories of life passing

On the eve of Christmas 2020, I bought for my Kindle e-book reader, something I often do – a mystery by John Grisham. And as has been happening for many years, since my partner Kath and I gave Faruqi saheb a Kindle, so he could fall into reading mysteries wherever he happened to be, Amazon asked me whether I wanted to deliver my book to “Faruqi’s kindle.”

Faruqi saheb and I shared the pleasures of mysteries – my inclinations were more heterogenous, his, as he put it to me wryly, were more quotidian. But he promised he would occasionally try out something more adventurous, rambunctious, even if he couldn’t assure me that he would like them.

Along with the mysteries I would sometimes send along a book of lyric or literary criticism, or every once in a while, some ‘serious’ fiction. And sometimes, inadvertently, ecocriticism, theory on oceans, speculative fiction – would land up on his virtual doorstep, because I would absentmindedly send it off to “Faruqi’s kindle” if I weren’t paying careful enough attention. It was as though his kindle was reaching out.

Perhaps it was – reaching out to the sense of literary adventure that Faruqi saheb inaugurated in the magazine/journal Shabkhuun (Night Attack) that he had edited for so many years, beginning in 1966 with the unfailing backing of his wife Jamila.

This particular Christmas eve in 2020 was one of those nights, where one suddenly feels the weighty niggle, a sort of urgency that can’t be shunted aside. Before I went to bed, I sent Mehr Farooqi a WhatsApp message for her, for Baran her sister and for her father. It was such a slight message, just carrying our love and healing with it, and a photograph – of an almost completely opened secular advent calendar, buzzing with animals, deer, dogs, cats, an owl or two in each window.

Faruqi saheb at home in Delhi with his dog Sunehri and Mitthu the parrot (March 2019). Photo: Nikhil Kumar

I knew that all three of them would enjoy the life that burgeoned in every casement. And I knew that Faruqi saheb adored animals and birds – I finally visited his home in Allahabad when his granddaughter was married, after years of promising to do so, played with his dogs, watched his joy and Mehr’s as I was introduced to the menagerie, and took time off in the bustle of wedding rambunctiousness to feel bird song play across my ears.

Each morning after I knew Faruqi saheb had been taken to the hospital with COVID-19, I would wake up wondering what I could expect. When he was in the hospital, Faruqi saheb and I sent little missives back and forth. I sent him photographs of trees from here, blooming into the richness of glowing auburn, gaudy scarlet, flamboyant gold, leaves holding onto autumn colours until the winds whisked them away in swirls. “Oh, to be in C’ville now it’s fall there”—came back. We exchanged slivers of autumnal lyric from John Keats, a legacy of his long affection for English literature, retooled to our desire.

I sent him night photographs of the diyas settled into thalis filled with rangoli Kath and I lit; our first solitary Diwali. Both of us wanted to bring Faruqi saheb the joy of light budding and fragmenting in colour.

We were lucky – Mehr, friend and colleague, lived in Charlottesville and so Faruqi saheb came to visit, talk in lingering hangouts. Our first and usually thoroughly secular Diwali here had us put out a chair in the cold that steamed our breath, fold Faruqi saheb into several blankets and seat him like a padshah in the centre of the large cluster of jostling spectators and see the delight blossom across his face as colour from the fireworks flushed and sparked the dark.

Also Read: ‘Farewell Father’: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s Daughter Remembers the Legendary Urdu Critic

Kath and I wanted to send him that joy he had brought us so many years ago. We had no idea at the time that it would be the last time we could. Phir dua deta hun, har varh mubarak ho (I pray again that you have happiness every single day) —it would be Faruqi saheb’s final paighaam for us in celebration.

A picture of Diwali lamps sent by the author to Faruqi saheb when he was in hospital, remembering the warmth of an earlier Diwali spent with him. “I pray again that you have happiness every single day”, was the last Diwali message from the mentor to his lifelong student. Photo: Geeta Patel

And then there was a sudden silence; Mehr let me know that Faruqi saheb was having trouble seeing.  I would wait–to hear from her either by email, or, occasionally on WhatsApp. I knew that the two sisters were absorbed in caring for him, so each missive felt like a gift. On the morning of December 25, I awoke to “he is no more.”

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi was a beloved father and teacher to his daughters Mehr and Baran, a grandfather, as well as an ustad to so many afficionados of literature; his loss is incalculable. He changed the face of Urdu but also what it meant to engage with the literary in all its shapes, glorious or unsightly. He meant so much to so many.

To me, when I met him almost 40 years ago now, when he came to Columbia University in the 1980s to write and translate with Frances Pritchett (Fran) with whom I was studying Urdu, he became a mentor. And I, his haphazard shagird. And my chaotic student-ness was OK, though until the end I knew I could anticipate the occasional humorous, affectionate chiding of constant concern about my health, even when Faruqi saheb himself was ill.

I can’t even begin to explain how important he was to me – I feel as though, now, I will be living with a whole slew of unfinished conversations, things I wanted to talk about, mull over, argue through, try out, say.

When I first met him, I was a graduate student in an Area Studies department. I had no money, so I had multiple jobs and engagements, as a nanny, as a translator in prisons, as an AIDS activist. I was studying classical Sanskrit, Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit, taking classes with Edward Said and Tzvetan Todorov, reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, Antonio Gramsci, Martin Heidegger, Islamic philosophy and theology, a continuation of my earlier degree in philosophy. I had studied Sanskrit but had had no schooling in the sorts of things students bring to an Area studies programme and little notion that I could not go to one to be trained in South Asian philosophical lineages.

Poetry was my heart. To most of my professors I was an anomaly, to Faruqi saheb I was just myself, an eclectic thinker. As I look back at that time in the early 1980s and look forward at Faruqi saheb’s oeuvre, and back at my own writing, I realise so clearly that I am his student, not in the sense that Professor Frances Pritchett was, or even his daughter Mehr. Rather, I am someone who has become, in my own iconoclasm, one of his silsilaah.

mujhe ab dekh kar abr-e-shafaq-ālūda yād āyā
ki furqat meñ tirī ātish barastī thī gulistāñ par

(Now, looking at the cloud stained by sunset, I remember
That as I was parted from you, fire poured from the sky onto the garden)

What did Faruqi saheb teach me? At that time in Fran’s classes in the 1980s, he read classical Urdu with us, Wali Daccani, Ghalib, Mir, daastaan. We worked our way through Faiz, N.M. Rashid and Miraji, Altaf Husain Hali, Muhammad Husain Azad, we read The Secret Mirror – all from copies that Fran handed out and I still have, covered in my notes, scribbled in pencil, blue ink and red pen on every margin.

“What Faruqi saheb showed all of us was the ability to read with absolute rapt care, not a word, a phrase, a metrical inflection left behind.”

At the time I had been barely been studying Urdu for over a year, but never once did I feel that what I offered fell short, was inadequate. What was demanded was my zehan, my intellect, and what Faruqi saheb showed all of us was the ability to read with absolute rapt care, not a word, a phrase, a metrical inflection left behind. He was an ustad of literal non-literalness – by that I mean that each phrase, each verb, each adjective had their place quite literally in the misra, or line, but how they were to be parsed, to be grappled with was as a figuration, as a figure of lyrical technique, something he wrote about copiously including in one of his final essays Mazmuun, Ma’ani Aur Istea’arah (Subject, Meaning and Metaphor).

I turn now to the bits and bobs of insight from those early years, which always sit by my side on a desk shelf, quickly amenable for me to revisit. And remember one of the first sharh, or commentary, we read from Shabkhuun as we were reading Ghalib, notated as V 4 N 39 8/69 in Fran’s dark black pen. “Now looking at the cloud stained by sunset” throws me back into the darkening sky in Charlottesville on our first Diwali, tinged with the vivid scarlet of fireworks pouring across the garden, something I will hold in my heart as memory. Translating from Faruqi saheb’s Urdu sharh as I parse the page, “the wounds of love never fully healed, because the thoughts of separation keep refreshing them.”

What we learned together then were the routes through which metaphor beckoned and called out to metaphor– fire and smoke, the clouds echoing smoke, the red skies of spring love, and the crimson of water pouring from clouds bringing us back to the flames, nature as loss’s palette.

In so many ways, as so many have said, an enormous burden that Faruqi saheb took on was to return us to the glorious play of metaphors speaking to each other. Here, in reclaiming their language as philosophical, as lyrical, as figuration, as the lexicon that poets shared, Faruqi saheb seized again what had been shunted aside, denigrated, vilified — a history of lyricism that was particularly Indic, where ma’anii consorted with mazmuun, meaning-making with themes, topics, ideas. He seized the means of remaking the philosophical, the historical and the expressive, pulling it away from an analytic that had sought to bind it elsewhere.

In his essay on Urdu poetry, Conflict, Transition, and Hesitant Resolution: A Survey of Urdu Literature, 1850-1975, published in 1992 in the voluminous collection Modern Indian Literature edited by K. M. George, Faruqi saheb says of the Urdu modernist poet Miraji (1912-1949), “Miraji’s great contribution was his demonstration of how it was possible to be both traditional and modern at the same time.” This was as true of Miraji as it was of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi; he might well have been describing himself. I like to think of Faruqi saheb as someone, who in being both traditional and modern through his work and life, put paid to the Macaulayan project.

I remember that he and I had been poring over the arguments in Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence and I wrote down his droll comments to me – acknowledging a lineage does not mean one has to be subservient and tossing it out does you no service.  Faruqi saheb was a literary polymath unafraid of tussling with positions he deemed egregious, who wrote abundantly in every genre, fiction, criticism, history, poetry, translation, with a prodigious repertoire of remembered archive, who gave himself over completely to the work of the poets, such as Ghalib and Mir, on whom he focused in Tafhiim -e Ghalib and Sher-e Shor Angez. He brought our lineages back to us.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi at home in Allahabad (January 2019): The master who “went back and recouped the past in all its fullness in so much of his critical writing and in his fiction.” Photo: Nikhil Kumar

It was not that Faruqi saheb did not love those he thought of as great writers in English literature; he was trained in it, in a Macaulayan vein (a la Gauri Viswanathan); so many people have memories of his passion for it. But this is not where he left off. Rather, Faruqi saheb went back and recouped the past in all its fullness in so much of his critical writing and in his fiction, even when and if it was through the finely honed candour of pointed critique, which he directed at it. Faruqi saheb brought our past back to life—one can feel its flesh in his stories and his novels. And in doing so he was a postcolonial modernist in the vein of Miraji.

I have come to study Miraji in the ways in which I do—tuning into lyric as well as its historical antecedents, and the places and people who produced them in copious detail—and will continue to do so because Faruqi saheb helped me get there along with Fran.

Faruqi saheb is still sending me to Miraji.  The very last poem I translated of Miraji’s was one we read during my first encounter with him under Faruqi saheb’s tutelage and it bears witness to Faruqi’s saheb’s mischievous bent – it was Chhed (‘Tease’), Miraji’s refashioning of e e cummings’ playful may I feel said he. This past November, when the webzine The Beacon found a version he had done and wanted to publish it, Faruqi saheb asked them to contact me instead to translate it. I finished it while Faruqi saheb was lying on his hospital bed and published it in his honour.

But what I learned as we read Miraji together – our inaugural poem Jaatrii, which I was expected to present to our class with great trepidation under Faruqi saheb’s gimlet attentiveness, was particularly apt—was that when we lose our lineages, whether dubious or magnificent, we often lose our sense of the paths (yatra) by which we have arrived at our contemporary intellectual impasses. We must know not only how to argue against where we find ourselves but get there by knowing intimately what the conditions of production that made various forms of explanation viable were, what the techniques for establishing value were.

Also Read: Farewell Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Sun That Set in the Earth

And since the circumstances of our current conundrums arose out of a deprecation of particular genres of composition in Urdu, it behoved us to reclaim them abundantly and understand the historical situation under which they were shaped.

To get here we had to focus not merely on the big polemical gestures made by critics such as Hali, or even, unexpectedly Hasrat Mohani among many, but on the nuances tucked into seemingly innocuous sentences. Reading prose to ferret out what writers believed demanded delicacy, it lay in filaments, and one had to attend to prose and criticism as though it were lyric—under Faruqi saheb’s tutelage I was trained to parse anything that came along my path.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (Allahabad, January 2019): “who in being both traditional and modern through his work and life, put paid to the Macaulayan project.” Photo: Nikhil Kumar

The seeming disparity between Faruqi saheb’s clear prose and enigmatic poetry (nazms, ghazals and ruba’iyat), is a piece of what makes him a postcolonial modernist. Lyric for him did not have to accede to the more unambiguous rhythms of prose, its business lay elsewhere. Poetry demanded that we fall into its figures and unpack them.

I think of these tugs and pulls, between the immediately comprehensible and the cryptic, the past brought into presence and a future that commanded radical difference, which Faruqi saheb encouraged through his own writings and those of strikingly singular writers he published and endorsed, as the hallmarks of postcolonial modernism. Postcolonial modernism as political.

This position may not have fallen easily into a political analytic that progressive writers cultivated and promulgated, but it was political, nonetheless. Its interventions lay where Antonio Gramsci might have placed them – in tussling with the cultural, historical and philosophical forms through which ideologies were inculcated. In tearing the sky open this way – in morphing again and again into dream one could perhaps, then, fly.

Though these lines from the nazm of Faruqi saheb’s that I translated many years ago do not exactly lend themselves to the use to which I put them today, their image registers suggest that we might yet find in the dreams he gave us our courage to soar. The lessons we will revive over and over from Faruqi saheb’s life and writing are those he left us as our own lineage and legacy.

And, as I look up at a sky slowly gathering its clouds in the deep magenta of amassing darkness, I know I am how I think and feel and compose because my ustad helped me, his haphazard shagird, to come to my own sense of myself.

Conversations in Tight Solitude

Tear the sky open
Come stand before me
So, your indigo pen can scrawl
Pallid yellow lines
On my forehead
Leafy glint of a peacock feather
Hue of a tiger’s rushed quickness
Gold, soot dark or flame bright
Your pitiless freezing gusts lacerate my heart
Colours’ swathe
Like pellucid wind against a jungle’s obduracy
And as blackened flesh, I
White figured in a spreading wilderness leached of pigment
Rubbed out by ice or darkness
Morph again and again into dream so I may fly —
Slivered light, stone shard
Cleave in me, shimmer into me
Come and break me apart
My terrifying terrorised God.

Geeta Patel is a professor in the Department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia and author of Lyrical Movements Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism and Desire in Miraji’s Urdu Poetry (Stanford University Press and Manohar Books) as well as Risky Bodies & Techno-Intimacy: Reflections on Sexuality, Media, Science, Finance (Women Unlimited and University of Washington Press).