Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib was born on December 27; Shamsur Rahman Faruqi died on the 25th, the two momentous events being merely two days apart in the calendar of the month. Indeed, we were waiting anxiously for a word that Faruqi Sahib may have uttered on the occasion, the most intimate and erudite Ghalib’s companion of our epoch as he was, but this time, the string of his breath broke just at the threshold.

This dialectic of cultural gain and loss, of emergence and absence, of sunrise and sundown, all of this plays havoc with us who are left behind. After Faruqi Sahib’s watershed Ghalib studies Tafheem-i-Ghalib [Understanding Ghalib], that appeared like the rising sun for 20 long years in every issue of the periodical Shabkhoon from 1978 to 1988, one cannot imagine entering the world of the great poet without the torch of this leading master lighting the way for us. The periodical was founded and edited single-handedly by Faruqi Sahib himself during a 40-year period (1966-2006), and he named it by the particular appellation not just rhetorically but, in effect, as a declaration, a pronouncement — a breaking-in.

While the compound word shabkoon literally means ‘night blood’, it is a standard expression understood in its derivative meaning of a surprise attack in the dead of the night, a breaking-in that sheds the blood of its victims. But who was the target here? The answer to this question unveils the stature of Faruqi Sahib, showing us his historic revivification of Urdu literature, saving its day from sinking into the darkness of hideous night.

As Faruqi Sahib was growing up, there were two sequential spectacles on the horizons of Urdu literature. On the one hand were the offspring of the British colonial gestations, those who had — so he observed — no more than a half-baked familiarity with Western literary criticism and modes, and suffered from a disparaging inferiority complex.

In the context of Ghalib, Abdur Rahman Bijnori is an eminent case in point; in his impassioned explication of the Urdu verses of the poet, this exegete looked only on that side of the English Channel, utterly overlooking the side where he himself stood. And in terms of general approaches to Urdu poetry, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s nature-obsession is another instance; his counsel to Urdu poets was that they should emulate William Wordsworth.

"As far as I am concerned, I know Western literature, but I do not feel belittled by it."

On the other hand, Faruqi Sahib saw on the near-horizon a spectacle that was claiming the bulk of the Urdu literary world: the Progressive Writers’ Movement. One would be justified to say that this was not so much a literary movement as it was an ideological one. Pushing the unique aesthetics of Urdu poetry into obscurity and flattening the plurality of meanings that a Ghalib generates, the Progressives were proselytising formulaic literature.

Recall that an outstanding poet of our own times, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, was censured by them for not adhering to the formula. Indeed, where Faiz contravened the requirement — a transgression he committed more often than not — he sings sublime songs woven with his signature silk threads. But when — and this happened somewhat infrequently — he succumbs to the formula requirement, his poetry is compromised.

Faruqi Sahib committed his shabkhoon against both, and his new Ghalib hermeneutics epitomise his monumental service as a saviour of Urdu literature in ways that are both multiple and complex.

As for the likes of Bijnori and other 19th and 20th century predecessors, this saviour speaks categorically: “First, all of these Ghalib exegetes stood in awe of Western literature, impressed by it but with no more than a nominal familiarity with Western principles of literary criticism. In light of whatever little they knew of Western literature, they found certain flaws in Ghalib, and some virtues of Ghalib appeared to them as defects.”

And then comes a resounding, but supremely honest, self-assessment: “As far as I am concerned, I know Western literature, but I do not feel belittled by it.”

What opens up a new vista in our understanding of Ghalib is Faruqi Sahib’s grasp of what he calls Eastern poetics — that is, the poetics of the composite culture of South Asia, with its Indic, Persianate and Arabo-Muslim elements. After making his first observation about his predecessors, he makes another proclamation: The principles of “Eastern poetics, that our classical poets have consciously or unconsciously observed, are in my view highly respectable, possessing an aesthetic virtue. And third, I have a firm faith in the doctrine that understanding any poetry is only possible when we have familiarity with the poetics in light of which that poetry is created.” This is a new manifesto in the whole history of Urdu literary criticism, and in Ghalib studies in particular.

So in explicating Ghalib, Faruqi Sahib’s primary anchorage is Ghalib’s poetics itself, only then he moves outwards. In moving outward, our grand critic explores what can be said about Ghalib by virtue of Western poetics. The question of “truth”, the Progressive act of making aesthetics a handmaiden of one specific “message” or one ideological programme, or a particular kind of social activism — all this is now thrown off board. We have been enriched.

So we see Faruqi Sahib speak frequently about this unique and characteristic poetic thrust of Urdu verse called sabk-i-hindi, a complex creative play between reality and metaphor; and he fully revived the legacy of Eastern poetics. We see him constructing his critical edifice first out of ingredients drawn from, for example, the 13th century Arabo-Muslim scholar Qudama ibn Jafar and the 17th/18th century Abdul Qadir Bedil, and then seeking illumination from the 18th/19th century poet-critic Samuel Coleridge and I.A. Richards of the following century.

I spoke above of the sundown, not of sunset. Now that Faruqi Sahib has left us, there remains his twilight and Urdu will forever live in its glow.

The columnist is dean, School of Liberal Arts at UMT and chair of the Arts and Humanities Panel at the HEC

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 3rd, 2021

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