IF reading the works of great poets represents freedom, and reading fiction represents opportunity and possibilities, why do people read literary criticism? “When I was very young, freedom beckoned through the poets I first loved,” is how the magisterial critic Harold Bloom opens his newest book, The Anatomy of Influence, succinctly subtitled “Literature as a Way of Life.”

If literature is a way of life, then surely criticism has a very definite purpose. Listing the great poets he encountered, Bloom says something which I find remarkable: “The sense of freedom they [the poets] conferred liberated me into a primal exuberance. If men and women initially become poets by a second birth, my own sense of being twice-born made me an incipient critic.”

Reading Takhleeq, Tanqeed Aur Naye Tassawurat, selected essays by the prominent critic Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, I could not help but recall Bloom’s fascinating account of favourite writers and wonder that, as Faruqi too is a poet, he can also be seen as a twice-born critic. Culled from several volumes of essays, this selection provides an invaluable opportunity to appreciate the range and intellectual vigour of a critic who has covered as wide a terrain of Urdu literature as possible and with a wide perspective.

Muhammad Hameed Shahid, who edited this volume, is a well-known fiction writer who has also made a mark as a critic. His most recent work is a spirited exchange with the US-based scholar and translator, Muhammad Umar Memon, around the letters Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa addresses to an imaginary younger novelist, which is alluded to in the introduction of this selection.

In his brief prefatory essay, Shahid specifically discusses Faruqi’s worth as a fiction critic whose importance goes far beyond the bulk of his work in this field. And this is an assessment with which I completely concur.

Faruqi’s essay, “Afsaney Ki Hïmayat Main”, (In Defence of the Short Story), which later provided the title to his collection of essays on fiction criticism, must have piqued many ardent admirers of the Urdu short story as he argues that the genre is secondary in importance to poetry.

This essay later led to a series of dialogues, which reminds me of the style Henry James adopted when giving his critical opinion on George Eliot’s novel. The conversational exchange and the incorporation of more than one points of view brings Faruqi closer in spirit to fiction, a field he went on to excel in with his unique novel, Kai Chand Thay Sar-i-Asmaan. The last three articles in that series are included in this volume.

Apart from the short story, Shahid does not delve deep into the many other interests Faruqi has displayed in his critical work. Instead, he describes the organisation and contents of the selection he has made.

The first section focuses on the aesthetics of Urdu poetry moving from the classical and the traditional to the contemporary and the modern, a transition Faruqi is able to make with greater ease and skill than any other critic. The editor explains that the section devoted to the genres of ghazal and nazm has been dropped, though it would have added to the value of the book.

Moving to theoretical issues of interpretation and analysis, the essays included here are particularly useful for the questions they address and explanation they provide of Faruqi’s method as a critic who has drawn deep from both classical Indo-Persian traditions as well as the modern.

The editor succinctly observes that these essays suggest an outline of the basic premise of literary criticism.

Evaluative concerns and a special focus on fiction define the remaining sections. The essay on the modern novel, written in 1971, seems dated as the discourse has undergone major changes and the critic too has moved on. Faruqi has devoted several volumes to the explication of Mir and laying the foundations of a new critical reading of the dastaan. It would have added to the value of this book if some selection from these books had also been included, although even without it, Takhleeq, Tanqeed Aur Naye Tassawurat is an adequate read.

Written with great clarity of style and depth of analysis, Faruqi’s critical essays are a literary feast for anybody who wants to understand how literature becomes a “way of life,” as Bloom pronounced it. This selection will not only serve as an introduction to the work of this seminal critic for students as well as serious readers, but is designed to provide an informed understanding of the rich and varied canons of Urdu literature.

The reviewer is a critic and fiction writer

Takhleeq, Tanqeed Aur Naye Tassawurat:  Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (ESSAYS) Edited by Muhammad Hameed Shahid Poorab Academy, Islamabad 438pp.Rs595

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