SHAMSUR Rahman Faruqi’s monumental novel, Kai Chand the Sar-i Asman, created history when it was published in Urdu in 2005 (Scheherazade). It was brought out in Hindi in 2010 and recently in English (Penguin 2013). The English translation was done by the author himself. One could say that this politico-historical, cultural romance has been written not one but three times!
Faruqi, who is acclaimed for his critical, path-breaking work on Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir and the dastan tradition, had returned to fiction only a few years earlier, storming Urdu’s literary world with his quasi-fictional construction of north India’s cultural (Indo-Muslim) milieu that formed the backdrop of his stories about Urdu’s great poets, Ghalib, Mir and Musahafi. These fictions are brimming with minute details of history, culture and the arts, recapitulated with a finesse and passion that show the writer’s remarkable erudition and extraordinary felicity with language. The fiction is speckled with Persian and Urdu verses drawn from a spectrum of classical poetry admirably suited to the subject of his stories. It helps that the subjects were embedded in the culture which produced that poetry and modern readers could relate to it, perhaps even relish it.
In his biographical musings, and more recently in interviews, Faruqi has shared the circumstances that led to the writing of ‘Ghalib Afsana,’ (Shabkhoon 1997) the first in the series of his fictions. He used the pseudonym Beni Madhav Rusava for the first story and Umar Sheikh Mirza for the second. The logic behind the choices of these pen names is interesting, but I will not go into that here. On the publication of the third story it became obvious that writer could be none other than Shamsur Rahman Faruqi whose knowledge on these subjects is legendary. The idea of ‘Ghalib Afsana,’ fascinating though it was, did have some precedent of sorts in Urdu: Malik Ram and Nisar Ahmad Farooqi’s aap biti style biographies of Ghalib and the notable Dilli ki Akhri Sham by Mirza Farhatullah Beg. The latter is a fictional account of the last mushaira in Delhi presided over by poet and last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Faruqi’s second story, ‘Lahore ka ek Waqia’ (An Incident in Lahore) is more experimental. It is a foray into the slippery terrain of truth and fiction or truth in fiction. Faruqi explores the anatomy of the brain, its responses to dreams, memory, recall, fear, tropes, triggers. The protagonist, who is accused of “making up facts” and blurring the line between fact and fiction, screams out: “All stories are true!” The third story, ‘Savar’ (Rider), is a complex, riveting narrative of the cultural life in Delhi in the 18th century. The stories Faruqi was writing were becoming longer and longer, quietly setting the mood for the big novel that was gestating in the author’s mind. A collection of five stories was published as Savar aur Doosre Afsane (The Rider and Other Stories) in 2001. Kai Chand the Sar-i Asman received spectacular reviews, even PhD dissertations, in a short period of time. The Hindi version, too, was well-received and became the subject of many discerning essays. Noting the success of the novel in Urdu and Hindi, the media focus on The Mirror of Beauty was expected, but is nonetheless incredible and quite unprecedented for a novel in translation. I was in Allahabad in the winter that the novel was transitioning from Urdu to Hindi and often sat at one end of my father’s big work desk, listening to him review the Hindi translation with Kranti Shukla. I have written about this elsewhere, but want to revisit the moment again. My father had the Urdu open in front of him while Krantiji read out the Hindi translation. I knew that the original was in a high register of Urdu with a fair amount of Persian. The corresponding Hindi was not a high register of Hindi; instead it was literary Hindi with a fair amount of colloquial vocabulary of what I would call Urdu. The title of the novel was retained although it had the Persian izafat, as in Sar-i asman. One distinction between Hindi and Urdu is the reluctance of Hindi to use izafat as it sounds strange with Sanskrit words. However, it was clear to me that the lexico-cultural roots of Urdu-Hindi being very close if not the same (Hindi was Urdu before it became modern Hindi) the transition of the novel was not difficult. Also, reading aloud and hearing the language helped in making decisions while reviewing the translation.
My sister and I were convinced that the novel must be translated into English as well. A team of translators that included the two of us was suggested. However, the text presented such formidable, intricate nuances of language and register that it convinced us that the only person who could translate the novel best was the author himself. I am taking the liberty of quoting, at some length, from a recent interview my father gave to Jeff Tompkins of the Asia Society regarding the challenges of translation into English:
“There were three kinds of challenges, but they all can be described as innate to the text. First, and insurmountable: The language, which is high Urdu on the one hand and archaic on the other. I could do nothing about the high Urdu except to avoid ‘stiff-necked English’ and write in a natural, flowing rhythm recognisable as English, but not amenable to evaluation or description in terms of ‘influence’. The problem of archaic Urdu I solved by writing deliberately archaic English, avoiding all words and usages that were not known in early 19th century.
“My second problem was the narrative voice. I wanted the narrator to be absent as much as is humanly possible. I solved the problem in Urdu, largely, by using as many registers as possible: learned men’s Urdu; the Urdu of the landed gentry; women’s Urdu, the Urdu of the ‘working classes’; the English of an Englishman of the 19th century as it would sound in Urdu translation. Even the narrator’s voice changes according to the narrator, from high Urdu to matter-of-fact narration.