The Urdu world is notoriously starved for novels but, in 2005, it was dazzled by the appearance of Kai Chand the Sar-i Asman, a wide-ranging historical narrative written in a bejewelled style. Immersed in the culture and language of Delhi in the last days of the Mughal era, the novel was later successfully rendered into Hindi and recently, into English. As the novel gains a new readership, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi responds from his home in Allahabad to questions about the novel, his models and sources of inspiration as well as future plans.
Farqui sahib, are you moved, excited, happy or beyond caring about the rave reviews your novel is getting from the press in India and abroad? Did you anticipate such a reaction? I won’t say that I am beyond caring. I am certainly pleased. The response of reviewers and interviewers has been truly flattering. Zakir sahib used to say that to be pleased when someone praises you is natural, but to believe the praise is the sign of a fool.
You are a leading scholar and critic who has done seminal work on Ghalib, Mir, the dastan tradition in Urdu fiction and the origins of the Urdu language. What made you turn towards fiction? Well, as you probably know, fiction is my first love. I began as a fiction writer when I was very young. I wrote a short novel when I was about 15. It was serialised in a magazine called Me’yar, published from Meerut. I didn’t save it, and am quite happy now in my old age because it was a truly juvenile effort. I wrote as if I knew everything about all the big questions of life. In that year, or maybe in 1951 when I was 16, I wrote a story that was greatly liked by all my teachers and friends. I translated that story into English when I went to the university at Allahabad in 1953. The story was published in the university magazine. I went into criticism because of my dissatisfaction with contemporary criticism. I thought most of it lacked precision. Except Askari, everybody seemed to be belle lettristic, or vague and/or dogmatic. I believed I could remedy that situation.
Your novel Kai Chand the Sar-i Asman was recognised as a trendsetter when it first appeared in the original Urdu version which you have now rendered into English as The Mirror of Beauty. What was the experience of translating your own work? Did it prove to be easy or were there any special difficulties in this? The Urdu has certain characteristics which are untranslatable: very high, literary Urdu for one thing. Then the language, which I had kept deliberately archaic. The different registers of language used in the novel. The profusion of poetry. Most important, the colours of the culture. I sacrificed the high, Persianised, or idiomatic Urdu, full of proverbs and idioms. I sacrificed the archaisms. I made the culture easier to approach by making explanatory remarks without appearing to do so. I translated the poetry almost literally, but again, with the view to better comprehensibility, I inserted explanatory language without appearing to do so.
The experience was very mixed when a writer as distinguished as Qurratulain Hyder translated her work into English. Do you think that you have fared better than others? Or framing this question differently, does the English version convey the spirit of the original in Urdu? It is not my place to comment on Qurratulain Hyder as a translator of her own work. Suffice it to say that her English translation of Aag ka Darya is about a third shorter than her original Urdu. My English version is about 15 per cent longer.
This novel is deeply ingrained in the historical milieu of Delhi in the middle of the 19th century. Where does the element of history stop and your imagination as a novelist take over? Is it possible, or even necessary, for the reader to differentiate this fine line separating the two? All the main events are historically true and accurately described. Much of the detail is historically accurate. I imagined history as fiction, entirely managing to forget that I was dealing with historical ‘facts’. All the historical characters (and most of the characters are historical) have been drawn by imagining the details on the bare, known facts. There is no line that I can draw between fact and fiction. Except, of course, that some of the poetry I attributed to Dagh is my own composition. And all of the poetry that I attribute to Wazir Khanam is again my composition.
While writing the novel, did you have any models for what you were setting out to do? Were you influenced by other writers? Possession by A. S. Byatt and Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd gave me some instances of how to write about a city (London in Chatterton) and the literary and social culture of a bygone age (the Victorian age in Possession). My older models (for my stories, which were useful for the novel too) were Dilli ki Akhri Sham by Mirza Farhatullah Beg, Mirza Ghalib se Ek Mulaqat by Malik Ram, and The History of Henry Esmond by W. M. Thackeray.
Following this book, you have written a new critical book on Manto in Urdu. Do you have plans to write more fiction? I wrote a long story Qabz-i Zaman while I was translating the novel. It’ll be published in book form shortly. I have had the idea of another novel in my head for quite some time.