I’ve been cleaning out closets; dusting bookshelves packed with love. Every book in this big room, every artefact, photograph, calligraphic art, assortment of pens and writing tools, pen drives and the computer, bears my father’s touch.
I go through his collection of music CDS and cassettes. A couple of days ago, I removed the dust covers of my music system. I seldom use it now. I wipe the cobwebs, black dust clings to my fingers and gets under my nails. Tentatively, I load a CD. Flute and santoor flow from the speakers. I sit down.
The lahsunia vine is loaded with flowers. The lawn is an emerald green. Chrysanthemums are lined up in the driveway. Father’s dogs rush to welcome me. I am in Allahabad in the sprawling house my parents built. This is where I grew up. But the house wasn’t always like this.
The front lawn used to be patchy; there were fragrant, desi gulaab in the flowerbeds. My room in the front of the house was adjacent to my mother’s. My walls were sea green, and hers sky blue. My little sister slept with Ammi. Father was posted in Lucknow, then Kanpur, Patna, Delhi and Lucknow again, before he retired and returned to Allahabad at the age of 60.
After retirement from government service, my father’s engagement with writing and commitment to editing the Urdu journal Shabkhoon grew deeper than before. In Allahabad, he became a much sought-after patron, speaker and mentor to the numerous big and small literary organisations speckling the city. My mother, an entrepreneurial educationist, roped him into taking interest in girls’ education, a cause she had championed for decades. He unfurled the national flag in my mother’s school, delivered spellbinding, encouraging speeches and announced scholarships.
The 1990s were winding down. A major event was the announcement of the Saraswati Samman — an annual award instituted in 1991 by the K.K. Birla Foundation, for outstanding prose or poetry in any of the 22 languages listed in Schedule VIII of India’s constitution. The inaugural award went to Harivansh Rai Bachchan for his four-volume autobiography. Father was awarded in 1996 for his monumental work on Mir Taqi Mir, Sher-i-Shor Angez [The Tumult-Raising Verse].
Father loved dictionaries. He was passionate about words.
I had accepted a teaching position in the United States in 1998, but came ‘home’ every summer, staying as long as I possibly could. Father was staying up nights working on a big novel. Mother was concerned about his health.
He had had a heart bypass surgery five years ago and had given up smoking since. But he had been a heavy smoker, suffered from breathing disorders, chronic cold and constipation. My mother fretted about his long hours at work. She tried to shield him from the daily stream of visitors; chided him for accepting too many assignments. She seldom complained about her own loneliness.
As far as we knew, father hadn’t written a novel before (he had written and published one in his early 20s). He had started to write a series of fictional biographical afsaanas [stories], beginning with Ghalib Afsaana, that had captivated Urdu’s literary world. He wrote under different pseudonyms and ultimately revealed himself (though most readers had guessed that it was none other than Faruqi sahib).
A high point of these afsaanas was the way he crafted language. A register of Urdu enriched with cultural assimilations, drawn from a spectrum of vocabulary, ranging from early times to the 18th century, the golden age of Urdu poetry. It was peppered with Farsi verses; a specialised lexis of vocabulary from the arts — music, painting, poetry of the Subcontinent — woven together in richly textured prose.
Father loved dictionaries. His collection took up shelves upon shelves, and he generally had several by his side when writing. He compiled word lists, glossaries, lexicons for his personal use. He assembled lists of words that had fallen into disuse. He enjoyed tracking, tracing the evolution of usages.
Sometimes, I was sent off to find a word in a particular dictionary. When it took me forever, he would get impatient, follow me to his library, take the heavy volume from my somewhat reluctant, but secretly relieved, hands, and turn to the right page in a matter of seconds. His eyesight had always been weak, it grew worse with age, but he pored over pages in tiny print, chuckling when he found the right word. I would get a sharp tap on my head for being careless or lazy in searching for the right word.
He was passionate about words and usage. Rare words were like rare gems for him. Father had immersed himself in Urdu and Farsi’s classical literature. The only individual who had read the 50,000 pages of the monumental, 46-volume Daastaan-i-Amir Hamza, he had a notebook filled with rare words. His close reading of Mir’s seven divans and Musahafi’s nine, plus every Urdu poet from the 300 years of classical Urdu poetry from Muhammad Afzal’s Bikat Kahani (1625 CE) to Dagh Dihlavi (d. 1905) were under his purview as he culled rare words.
The result was a collection of some 12,000 words. He kept pruning, expanding, refining the range of meanings till the very end. This was his favourite project. He named it Tazminul Lughat. He published excerpts from this work with an introduction, explaining how and why he went about this labour of love. Tazminul Lughat’s master file was stored in his desktop computer. A copy of the section he was working on was on the laptop he carried to Delhi. When we finally mustered the courage to turn on his laptop, the Lughat was the last file he had edited.
As I write these words, the strains of santoor comfort me. My sister Baran’s grandchildren romp in the lawn. The Allahabad house, with its library of 40,000 books, its rows of journals lovingly curated, the Amir Hamza collection, the dictionaries, are a living memory. The house is alive, the memories safe.
The columnist is associate professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 2nd, 2022