Among the various forms of writing prevalent in Urdu literature, literary criticism has probably suffered the most from a chequered history. In its early days, the critic Kalimuddin Ahmad described it as a non-existent entity. As we come to the contemporary scene, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi regards it as ephemeral and static. More substantive than others’, Faruqi’s range and breadth as a literary critic is the subject of Sher, Sheriyat Aur Fiction: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi Ki Tanqeed Ka Mutala, a new and meticulously detailed study by scholar Safdar Rasheed.

“There is no other critic more relevant today in pulling out Urdu literary criticism from absurdity and meaninglessness,” Rasheed argues in the preface. “It is as necessary to utilise his criticism in literary discourse today, as much as studying contemporary works,” he further says. This is not self-justification on the part of the author, but an emphasis on the subject and the central importance of this ground-changing critic.

Faruqi is an accomplished poet and, in a more recent development, he has made his mark as an unusually gifted novelist, but it is his critical practice which is the subject of this detailed study. Rightly so, as it is in this particular area that Faruqi has made the greatest impact. This book systematically goes through Faruqi’s large and extensive critical writings through listing his central thematic concerns.

A comprehensive study of the ground-changing literary criticism of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

In his early days, Faruqi was seen as an ardent supporter of the modernist trend in Urdu poetry as he championed its cause against the ideologically inspired poetry of the Progressives, whom he accused of being verbose, rhetorical and fostering non-literary virtues. A fervent admirer of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib all along — whose selected verses became the subject of his interpretations — Faruqi went on to study Mir Taqi Mir in even more detail. His work on Mir is not only valuable in itself, but he challenges previously held views about the poet, literally expanding the horizon. Many poets in the classical mode, who were labelled ‘minor poets’ and were generally ignored, reveal their true colours in Faruqi’s essays.

All this is not easy to summarise or to analyse, but this is the task taken up by Rasheed, and he has been successful in delineating the contours of his complex subject. Rasheed’s book opens with a chapter placing Faruqi’s critical achievement in the context of the overall development of literary criticism in Urdu and especially in comparison with his contemporaries. This includes writers such as Muhammad Hasan Askari and Aal-i-Ahmad Suroor, two critics whose influence Faruqi has regarded as pivotal to his own development. However the comparison with Dr Wazir Agha and Dr Gopi Chand Narang is totally off the mark because, despite a common interest in modernism, their concerns are ultimately different.

The second chapter — which is really the heart of the book — takes up the major concepts Faruqi has grappled with in his work. These include questions of the text and its interpretation, the non-literary criteria for evaluating literature, aspects of modernity, post-colonial ideas and discussions related to poetics. As the critical argument develops further, the book focuses on poetry, the rediscovery of the Urdu daastaan and discussions related to the poetics of fiction.

The detailed analysis of Faruqi’s critical stance opens up a rich and in-depth study of some of the major questions in literary studies. More than any other critic, Faruqi can be credited for the rediscovery of the daastaan by establishing a proper method for its reading, rather than seeing it merely as an early prototype of the novel. Although Faruqi wrote seminal essays on modernist short story writers — including Enver Sajjad and Surinder Prakash — he regarded the short story as a lower form as compared to poetry, leaving one wondering if such a comparison were needed. His later books include a study of Saadat Hasan Manto and this study discusses Faruqi’s views on the great short story writer — which include some rather startling judgements. The author makes his own observations, but it would have been more useful to develop this further.

In all respect and humility, the writer has approached Faruqi’s criticism as if it were a single entity, complete in itself and somehow beyond time.

Rasheed’s style is simple and lucid as he endeavours to make the topics accessible to non-specialist and non-academic readers. No wonder that the book has merited favourable comments from three senior and respected critics — Tehseen Firaqi, Muhammad Hameed Shahid and Nasir Abbas Nayyar — and these are included as the foreword for the book. While all three critics have given high praise to the book and its author, it is interesting to note that all three of them use this occasion to comment directly upon some points in Faruqi’s own writings and stating their differences of opinion. In doing so, they add to the discussion and evaluation of Faruqi’s criticism taken up by the book.

The appendix at the end is no less interesting than the body of the main text. It comprises a series of questions. some rather pointed, posed by the author to Faruqi in person while carrying out the research work which later took the form of this book. Faruqi responded to each of the questions in sufficient detail and his answers are referred to in the body of the book. It may have been worthwhile if the writer had risen to the challenge posed by him and penned a conclusion contextualising Faruqi’s responses.

Some of the positions Faruqi has taken over the years have certainly undergone a change and it would be useful to chart these changes over a chronological timeline. In all respect and humility, the writer has approached Faruqi’s criticism as if it were a single entity, complete in itself and somehow beyond time. It would have been useful to look at the crevices and fissures in the rock and approach the work as something evolving over a period of time. This would not have taken away any of its distinction, but would also have placed it within the context of the literary scene of those days, which was affected by Faruqi’s work and, at the same time, was altered by the fine critic.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer. Among his recent publications is a collection of essays on Saadat Hasan Manto. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Sher, Sheriyat Aur Fiction: Shamsur Rahman
Faruqi Ki Tanqeed Ka Mutala
By Safdar Rasheed
Majlis Tarraqi-i-Adab, Lahore
485pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 27th, 2019