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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.

“My third problem was the profusion of poetry, Persian and Urdu, much of it directly quoted but some of it only alluded to (in the hope the literate reader would recognise the allusion). The actual poetry I met head-on, by translating it into English as best I could, not striving for the ‘literary’ effect but also avoiding the ‘literal’. The allusions had to be given up, sometimes with a heavy heart. An allied problem was the profusion of proverbs and idioms. I just let them go, unless I could find a telling equivalent in English, or could do it myself.

“I want to emphasise that by ‘high Urdu’ I don’t mean bookish, pedantic Urdu. I mean idiomatic Urdu which draws creatively and continuously on the resources of Urdu and Persian, an Urdu in which Arabic gets a more than casual look-in, and in which ‘literary’ words, even if Sanskrit-based, are preferred to ‘plain’ words.”

The poetic title of the novel Kai Chand, like most poetry, was practically untranslatable or suitable for the English version. “There were Many Moons at the Edge of Sky,” or “Scattered Across the Sky,” or “On the Horizon,” etcetera, did not fit the bill. Switching from moons to stars as that works better in English was also rejected. Eventually, after a long list of titles had been exhausted, my sister, Baran, had the brilliant idea of searching for something from The Shadow of a Bird in Flight, a collection of some of the best Persian verses with English translations by Faruqi. Mirror is an allusive, tropic lexis in Perso-Urdu poetry. In Sufistic parlance it is compared to the heart, reflecting and representing the inner self. The mirror is an illusion too, in that the reflection it produces is intangible. It symbolises wonder, perplexity, restlessness, and many emotional states. Beauty is the highest of ideals of perfection but is transitory in this world. One does wonder what was going through Faruqi’s mind when he chose a part of a misra of his friend, the well-known contemporary poet, Ahmad Mushtaq’s she’r for the title:

Kai chand the sar-e asman ke chamak chamak ke palat gaye Na lahu hi mere jigar mein tha na tumhari zulf siyah thi

The she’r itself is enigmatic — a rough translation would be — There were many moons in the sky/horizon that shone and were gone My heart [liver] lacked blood/courage, your tresses were not dark [enough]

A paraphrase could be: There were beautiful stars on the horizon that shone and were gone. You and I lacked the courage to be like them? Or grab them? So is Kai Chand a novel about many stars/moons and their trajectories or is it the simply the story of Wazir Khanum, the exuberant beauty who took control of her life in an independent, somewhat unconventional, but exemplary manner? Or was she the epitome of a culture that produced her? A reminder of the pre-colonial shared past of a people now divided by the historical exigencies of colonialism? Her ancestors belonged to Kishangarh, the atelier where exquisite portraits of Sri Radha were painted by Hindus and Muslim painters. The ruler of Kishangarh, Savant Singh (1699–1764), a contemporary of the Mughal emperors Farrukhsiyar (1713–19), and Muhammad Shah (1719–48), was a painter and poet who wrote under the pen name of Nagari Das. Savant Singh was also an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna and his consort Sri Radha. He evolved a new style of depicting Radha and Krishna. At the age of 32, he fell in love with a beautiful, slender, graceful slave girl with sharp features whom he called Bani-Thani (the Bedecked One). Bani-Thani’s visage inspired the idealised portrait of Sri Radha, conceived artistically by Savant Singh himself. The iconic portrait of Sri Radha, in profile, though unsigned, was probably the work of Nihal Chand (1735–1757), the famous Kishangarh painter.

Just as the seductive beauty Bani-Thani inspired Savant Singh and scores of painters to create the mystical Sri Radha, whose wistful half-closed eyes and slightly upturned mouth are an artistic triumph, so, in Faruqi’s novel, did Bani-Thani morph into Wazir Khanum, the olive-skinned beauty of matchless grace, the master of an independent, free spirit. The fact that Wazir Khanum was a real woman who lived and died makes her imaginary life narrative compelling and immortalises her. She was buried in history and known as the mother of the great poet Dagh Dihlavi. Faruqi’s novel has made her alive for generations of readers.