Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

The year 2020 proved the cruellest one and, as it approached its end, the Covid-19 pandemic gave a harrowing blow to the world of Urdu literature — it claimed Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a giant in the truest sense of the word.

What made Faruqi a towering, majestic and most influential figure of the contemporary Urdu world was not just that he had deeply absorbed the classical and modern traditions of Urdu, English and Persian literatures, but also his decades-long intellectual engagement with these traditions in a bid to play out a solution to the “colonial-modern conundrum.”

Born in an orthodox Muslim family on Jan 30, 1935, in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and raised by a strict disciplinarian father, Faruqi developed a permanent predilection for a kind of ‘conservatism’ on the one side; on the other, he developed a very disciplined, methodical mind. In one autobiographical work, he admitted that “on account of my religious background, I couldn’t convince myself of the communist way of thinking.” He went on to say that, for a brief period, he tilted in favour of the Jamaat-i-Islami but, soon, revolted against the Jamaat’s ideology about literature. The reasons for disdaining both Progressive and Jamaat ideologies of literature were the same: his unflinching belief in the ‘literariness’ of literature. As a critic, he was formalist and essentialist.

His relationship and engagement with English was, in some ways, more problematic. Despite his orthodox religious background, he earned a masters degree in English (in 1955, from the University of Allahabad) and joined the Indian Civil Service. He also nourished a long-lasting taste for English literature — “The concatenation I have developed over the course of time with Shakespeare cannot be expressed in words.” He dreamed of being acknowledged and esteemed as an English-language poet but, despite his enviable command over English, he settled for Urdu. A decisive moment indeed!

To Faruqi, Urdu was not just a medium of expression, but the embodiment of a great civilisation: Hind-Islami Tehzeeb. In the mid-1950s, when Faruqi was set to formally start his literary career, he discerned that the challenge of cultural dementia stood atop. So, for him, writing was not just an expression of an individualised, alienated self, but a cultural self. The notion of Hind-Islami Tehzeeb, adopted and disseminated by the likes of Hasan Askari (whom Faruqi held in great esteem) and Intizar Husain in Pakistan, and by Faruqi in India, was marked by decolonising intent. It was thought that discovering or constructing Hind-Islami Tehzeeb, through the classical Urdu literature fostered under the Mughals, could do away with the malaise of cultural dementia inflicted by the colonial rulers.

However, Faruqi diverged from the Pakistani writers’ notion of Hind-Islami Tehzeeb, constructing a distinct ‘theory’ which exclusively defined the indigenously developed distinctness of the poetics of classical Urdu literature. The notion propounded by Pakistani writers was marked by a religiously inspired ideology; Faruqi offers a notion cultural in nature and, eventually, heterogeneous, maintaining that three different strains of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literatures inform the tradition of Hind-Islami Tehzeeb.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who passed away on December 25, was a true giant of Urdu literature — a critic, a poet, a novelist, a short story writer, a lexicographer and a theorist

The world of art is full of mysteries. What an artist loves most can remain elusive to them. Faruqi was seven when he composed his first misra [poetic line]. “Poetry is like breath in my lungs and blood in my heart,” he revealed in the preface to his first collection of short stories, Savaar Aur Doosray Afsaanay [The Rider and Other Stories] and composed poetry till the end. Ganj-i-Sokhta [Burned Treasure], Sabz Andar Sabz [Green Inside Green], Aasmaan Mehraab [Arc of the Sky] and Majlis-i-Afaq Mein Parvaana Saan: Kulliyat [Like a Moth in a Congregation of Welkin: Collected Works] are books of his verse. Moreover, in his book Afsaanay Ki Himayat Mein [In Defence of the Short Story], he held that the short story is far less artistic than poetry. To emphasise his point, he stated that, when we think of great Urdu writers, Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Allama Muhammad Iqbal come to mind, not Prem Chand, Saadat Hasan Manto or Rajinder Singh Bedi.

Despite this, it was criticism and fiction where his intellectual and creative genius found expression with full force. He wrote only three books of fiction — Savaar Aur Doosray Afsaanay, Kai Chaand Thay Sar-i-Aasmaan [The Mirror of Beauty, as translated by himself] and Qabz-i-Zaman [Halt of Time] — yet he is, for all sorts of reasons, among the few best Urdu fiction writers.

Though he wrote a few stories while a student in class nine, it was Ghalib who made him realise the power and art of fiction. Interestingly, while his magnum opus, the four-volume Sher-i-Shor Angaiz [Stormy Verse] is a hermeneutic study of Mir’s poetry, his first love was Ghalib. He had the same esteem for Ghalib that he did for William Shakespeare. The movement of modernism that Faruqi initiated through his literary magazine Shabkhoon [Night Ambush, established 1966] was compelled to resort to Ghalib to seek legitimacy.

In postcolonial countries, movements of modernism often ran into a crisis of legitimacy; they looked to the past for endorsement from indigenous, authoritative ‘modern’ figure(s). So, each issue of Shabkhoon would carry interpretations of Ghalib’s verses. And there lay the seed of Faruqi’s short story writing. To pay tribute to Ghalib, he wrote the short story ‘Ghalib Afsaana’, publishing it under a pseudonym. He had discovered that ‘search’ was the biggest motif of great fiction and, by fabricating the story of Ghalib and recreating the cultural and literary ambience that characterised the age of Ghalib, he stumbled upon the idea that the power of fiction lay in the search for origin.

The notion of origin can be traced across all of Faruqi’s writings. It needs to be stressed that his notion was cultural and literary, so had the traits of plurality and diversity. He had come to believe that, by retracing Urdu’s cultural and literary past (particularly of the 18th century), we could subvert colonial narratives, about us in general and about Urdu literature in particular.

That “Urdu literature, with its attendant culture, was decadent, as it was inundated with hyperbole (mubalgha), heresy (kufr) and scurrility (fahashi)” was the thrust of the colonial narrative. Faruqi contested this colonial argument in both his critical writings — especially in the books Taabeer Ki Sharah [Exegesis of Interpretation], Urdu Ka Ibtadai Zamana [The Early Years of Urdu] and in extensive introductions to Sher-i-Shor Angaiz — and his fiction.

For him, words were not just a medium or vehicle, but never-expiring ‘energy’. He seemed to believe that each word used by poets and writers of the past must be preserved and comprehended in the context classical poetry provides. Thus, a sort of cultural conservatism that all postcolonial writers are more or less destined to embrace gets entrenched in his writings.

Ontologically, his fiction is linked to his criticism. Both possess subversive power taken from archival research, yet he never trespassed the point where critical logic diverges from the narrative/creative paradigm. How masterfully and marvellously he built the character of Wazir Khanam in the novel Kai Chaand Thay Sar-i-Aasmaan! His contribution to the tradition of Urdu fiction is novel and marvel. Making Urdu writers the protagonists of his fiction was not something that he pioneered — he himself mentions Mirza Farhatullah Beg, Malik Ram and William Makepeace Thackeray in this regard — but reclaiming forgotten and distorted tehzeeb was a curvet that his fiction made.

‘Origin’ as metaphor can be traced throughout his repertoire of criticism. What is the original function of criticism? This question haunted him. In an interview with Shahzad Manzar for the literary magazine Roshnai, Faruqi categorically said that criticism couldn’t be impressionistic: “I consider impressionistic criticism extremely vulgar, nonsensical and absurd.”

He held that criticism is a systematic discipline and, without following some basic rules, one is not entitled to give any critical opinion. Rules let critics draw plausible distinctions between literature and non-literature, and espouse a logical way to define the merits and demerits of literary aesthetics in lucid, unambiguous style. So, the original function of criticism is to identify the essence, or original attribute and value, of literature: literariness. Though in some essays in Taabeer Ki Sharah and a few interviews he distinguishes creative literature from criticism and decrees that the latter is a second-rate activity in contrast to the former, his overall critical writings tell another story.

Faruqi emphasised that the original function of criticism is to envisage literariness — the originary attribute of literary text. This way, his criticism served as a bulwark against all those theories that insist on the social role of literature. His books Lafz-o-Maani [Words and Meanings], Faruqi Kay Tabsaray [Faruqi’s Commentaries], Andaaz-i-Guftugu Kya Hai [What a Manner of Speech], Tanqeedi Afkaar [Critical Thoughts], Asbat-o-Nafi [Affirmation and Negation], Urdu Ghazal Kay Aham Morr [The Important Turning Points of Urdu Ghazal], Urooz, Ahang Aur Biyan [ Prosody, Melody and Utterance], Marafat-i-Sher-i-Nau [Gnosis of Modern Poetry] and others contend that it is not content, but form or aesthetic value that categorically defines what is literature and what is not.

Literature is an autonomous and self-sufficient entity, independent of any social, moral or political obligation, he believed. He admitted that his formal introduction to literature was by way of Progressive writers such as Aale Ahmad Saroor and Ehtasham Hussain, but he mocked the Progressives and their literary and political ideology all along. His formalist way of criticism compassed Marxist criticism as an indispensable ‘other’ which was out there to be refuted. Paradoxically, while explaining formalist and stylistic features of literary text, he had to have recourse to the theme, subject or mazmoon of that text and, of course, to its cultural or any other import, his criticism couldn’t make out place — and sympathy for committed, resistance literature.

Faruqi’s critical writings have both baffled and angered the bigwigs of the contemporary literary world. On the one hand, he was a mentor for modernist writers, promoting them through Shabkhoon; on the other, he put all his intellectual potential into discovering the poetics of the classical Urdu ghazal and daastaan — after reading 46 volumes of Daastaan-i-Ameer Hamza, he theorised the poetics of this forgotten genre of fiction. In his essay on modern Urdu poetry included in Lafz-o-Maani, he pronounces that the “new poet doesn’t believe in any father image and considers himself uncommitted from all respects.” And in his preface to Savaar Aur Doosray Afsaanay, he asserts: “in my eye, the 18th century is the culmination of Hind-Islami Tehzeeb.”

In Sher-i-Shor Angaiz he seeks to envisage all the elements of the culmination of Hind-Islami Tehzeeb by theorising the classical poetics through a hermeneutical study of Mir’s poetry. How can you justify being an enthusiastic proponent of modernism and classicism simultaneously? This was the baffling question that angered the grandees of Urdu literature.

Obviously, this question emerged from a belief in the ‘colonial-modern’ construction of history, that the present (Western, modern, white cultural and intellectual supremacy) and past (pre-colonial, old, redundant, ‘decadent’ India) are poles apart. So, many a modern critic held that modernism and classicism have nothing in common, that classicism and its accompanying literary genres, figures or devices are like a father figure that must be abandoned and abolished.

At many places, Faruqi avowed that Ghalib was a modern poet in any sense of the word. So, it is not astonishing that almost every modern Urdu writer looked towards Ghalib in search of some indigenous prototype (meaning that modern writers dispensed with all father figures except for Ghalib). Ghalib’s world view and poetics have dispelled the ‘myth’ that there is any essential antagonism between modernism and classicism.

The most glaring thing that Faruqi had us note is his doggedness on word-based literary devices. Classical terms mazmoon, maani aafreeni, iham, riayat, khayal bandi are all word-based or logo-centred. In his perhaps last essay, ‘Mazmoon, Maani Aur Isteaara’ [Subject, Meaning and Metaphor], published in the current issue of the Karachi-based literary magazine Mukaalma [Dialogue], Faruqi delineates an indispensable relation between mazameen [subjects] and metaphors of classical Urdu poetry.

For instance, in classical Urdu poetry, the mazmoon of the beloved’s infidelity was metaphorical; it was a follow-up of imagining the beloved as an idol that stays indifferent to its worshippers. Mind, it was a totally metaphoric and poetic business, not reflective of any outer reality. Poetry was thought to have been quintessentially a linguistic affair, because poetic language had the magical power to create a reality of its own kind, yet putting a ‘real’, forceful effect on its readers. Interestingly, literary terms of modernist literature that Faruqi employs in his writings on modern Urdu poets are also logo-centred. Ambiguity, paradox, imagery, metaphor and symbol — all are characterised by exploiting the connotative aspects of language.

This way, Faruqi’s life-long interest in lexicography can also be explained. For him, words were not just a medium or vehicle, but never-expiring ‘energy’. He seemed to believe that each word used by poets and writers of the past must be preserved and comprehended in the context classical poetry provides. Thus, a sort of cultural conservatism that all postcolonial writers are more or less destined to embrace gets entrenched in his writings.

In his last days, he was vehemently compiling Tazmeen al Lughat, another grand project that, we can expect, shall be completed by his able daughter Mehr Afshan Farooqi.

The writer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab Ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid and, more recently, Modernity, Coloniality and Urdu Literature (criticism) and Aik Zamaana Khatm Huwa Hai (short stories)

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

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