TRIBUTE: ‘BHAI’, MY FATHER-IN-LAW

Published January 24, 2021
Photo courtesy Richard Cohen
Photo courtesy Richard Cohen

I am in awe of Bhai — my father-in-law, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. There are very few people who are blessed with the kind of intelligence and humanity he exuded throughout his fulsome life.

God granted him many gifts, and though I made his acquaintance in 1993 or thereabouts, it wasn’t until I fell in love with his daughter, Mehr Afshan Faruqi, that I began to understand the depth to which he represented the special gifts that he possessed.

I feel so fortunate to have been his son-in-law. I worked hard to win his respect. It took a while. One day, sitting in his wonderful study, surrounded by books, he looked at me over a cup of tea — thousands of which we enjoyed together — and remarked, “Rich, I like you.” I will be forever thankful for his love, affection and respect. We spent countless hours discussing literature, language and opinions on all sorts of subjects. We pulled no punches. I learned how to be transparent and concise with my thoughts from Bhai. What a teacher and mentor!

For many years, I have been working on and refining a translation of a very important 14th century Indian Sufi masnavi, titled Chandayan. As I began my study of the text, he encouraged me. We consulted many times on the project, and finally he helped me bring it to fruition. I only regret that it will see the light of day after his passing.

He never pulled me up for my inadequacy in Urdu language and literature. Always encouraging, he allowed me the luxury of switching back and forth between Urdu and English as we conversed. I can’t imagine he allowed other shagirds [students] such accommodations.

A Western scholar remembers his association with the late Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

We had a special relationship. It was a bond that nothing could break. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have known him and entered his inner circle. I learned so much from perusing his library, especially the volumes on literary criticism, linguistics and literary history. I must admit that his vast collection of mystery novels I read while spending time at the house in Allahabad helped me while away the spare hours when we weren’t discussing serious topics.

Every morning in Allahabad, I would rise and immediately take myself to his bedroom and sit next to him. We’d have a go at the newspapers of which he was an inveterate reader, then move on to reactions to the current news. No subject was off limits. Every once in a while, I’d screw up my courage and ask his opinion on a subject on which I was an expert, and on which he knew less. He was always game for such discussions, and listened carefully and intensely, then pronounced his opinion.

He was particularly opinionated on the quality of any discrete example of literature. If he found it wanting, he would say so. Sometimes I attempted to defend a poem for its quality. Sometimes, he would demur, and remark that the poem simply didn’t qualify as a quality example, and that was that. I respected his opinion. He backed it up with examples and reasons why he felt the way he did. He never pulled any punches. He always called a bogus idea simply a bogus idea, discussion finished. Occasionally, he did concede a point, but only rarely, after listening to a rebuttal.

I felt so proud when we would arrive at a venue that had invited him to give a talk, and he would make sure to introduce me as his son-in-law while the conveners fawned over him. He smiled when he did so. He was genuinely proud of me. Such introductions sometimes led to interesting conversations between me and others, and I am forever grateful for his kindnesses.

After his coming down with Covid-19, Mehr and her sister, Baran, began the battle to save him. No effort was spared. Bhai valiantly fought against steep odds, tolerating all sorts of medications and therapies. Ironically, after essentially overcoming Covid-19, he fell victim to a pernicious fungus infection of the eye. Heeding his desire to be at home in Allahabad, Mehr and Baran organised a special medical air taxi and brought him home. Within an hour of reaching his bed, he left this world.

As many have remarked in obituaries, Bhai was in full possession of self-confidence. He knew who he was: an Indian cultural patriot who suffered no inferiority feelings about his living through the colonial and postcolonial eras. He was keenly aware of where he stood in the crevasse of political and cultural transition between pre-independent India and post-independent India.

He understood the shortcomings of the Marxist interpretation of society, culture and literature, and found it wanting. He understood the need to move into the future, to a new world, without the baggage of Western domination of his intellectual heritage as well as the slave mentality of false ideology promoted by the Progressive Writers’ Association.

He alone built the foundation of a new Indian literary/cultural criticism through the journal Shabkhoon [Night Ambush], which he indefatigably edited for 40 years, welcoming a variety of new voices, heralding an Indian point of view of modern literature. Through his many literary guises, he earned the encomia that are now being bestowed on him. Hundreds are raising their voices. He will not be forgotten.

The writer is lecturer and co-director of the India Programmes at the University of Virgina and specialises in medieval Indian literary and linguistic history

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 24th, 2021

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