Shamsur Rahman Faruqi shot to the notice of the English-speaking literary world in 2013 with his book called The Mirror of Beauty, a translation of his 2006 Urdu novel Kai Chand the Sar-e-Asman. Paucity of translators forced Faruqi to translate the novel himself. The book is a part-historical, part-fictional account of the life of Wazir Khanum, mother of the Urdu poet Daag Dehlvi. She had a highly unconventional career, and a fragmented life in which she had four lovers or husbands.

Her last husband was Mirza Fakhru, direct successor to Delhi’s throne after Bahadur Shah Zafar. While the book gives a glimpse into the court life and the noble culture of the last days of Mughal culture, its aim is to create a connection between Khanum’s life and the city of Delhi.

According to Faruqi there are many resonances between the history of the city and the fortunes of the beautiful Khanum. They both made similar decisions and had a lot going for them, but things eventually rose against them. Khanum was a brave woman who resurrected herself  from the ashes after every blow in life. She refused domesticated conventional life and chose to be with several partners.

After The Mirror of Beauty, Faruqi came out with The Sun That Rose From The Earth in 2014. The book makes palpable the lives of Urdu poets like Ghalib, Mir and Mushafi, among others, and is steeped in poetry. The Sun That Rose From The Earth also came out first in Urdu in 2001 as Saavar aur doosre afsaane. The first chapter “Bright star, lone splendour” depicts a series of meetings between Ghalib and a young provincial fan and their discussions on poetry and poetics. We discover Ghalib’s prejudice against Indian poets who wrote in Persian as he felt one had to be born in that language to be able to compose poetry. In another, Faruqi brings alive the story of Mir’s lover whose origins could be traced to Belgrade.

Faruqi is also a literary critic and was editor of the journal Shabkhoon. He won the Saraswati Samman in 1996 for his four-volume study of Mir Taqi Mir, Sher Shore Angez. He talks about his serendipitous discovery of Wazir Khanam, his stint as a literary critic and his love for the robust and versatile poetry of Mir.

The central character of The Mirror of Beauty is Wazir Khanam. You said somewhere that you were thinking of writing a story on Daag Dehlvi but in the process of research, you got fascinated by Wazir. What were the reasons? 

At that time I was writing a series of stories on Urdu poets of the 18th century and the literary culture of that time, later published in English as The Sun That Rose From The Earth. I finished writing a story on Mir Taqi Mir, then someone suggested why not write a story on Daag? He was a colourful character, the last star of the 19th century, with a commanding reputation.

I knew something about Daag’s family, that he was the offspring of Wazir Khanum, the mistress of Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, the ruler of Loharu. He was hanged by the British.

Wazir Khanum as a very young girl ran away with an Englishman, Marston Blake, and after he died, she returned and entered into a liaison with Shamsuddin. After his death, she went to Rampur where her elder sister was living. She got married again but that man also died. Finally she married Mirza Fakhru, third heir apparent to the throne of Delhi. All these things I knew, but these were the bare bones.

When I went deeper, I found certain reverberations and certain symbolism and resemblances between the last days of Delhi, the 1857 episode, the decline of Delhi. The traditional narrative handed down by British orientalist historians is that Delhi was dying at that time, it was intellectually bankrupt, mentally effete. It was a kind of narrative that without being explicit, created a justification for the British arrival, presence and occupation.

I knew a lot about 19th century Delhi, I knew the narrative was not quite accurate but it was the dominant one and difficult to shake off. An influential critic condemned the sensuousness and mental vacuity of Daag’s poems and saw it as a reflection of the libertine life in Delhi. To blame the poetry of Daag and see it as a reflection of the entire city is wrong. When I read the book by this critic, who went largely unchallenged when it first came out, I found that he had referred to Wazir Khanam as a loose, profligate woman who ran away with an Englishman and was given only to the pursuit of pleasure.

She was depicted as a gold digger. I wrote Mirror of Beauty to quash such skewed narratives. In fact in the preface, I quoted Muhammad Husain Azad who wrote the Collected Works by Zauq. In that book he describes the encounter between Mirza Fakhru and Zauq.

One day, Zauq was shown a woman’s portrait by a smitten Mirza Fakhruand asked to praise her beauty. Zauq recognized Wazir, a woman, “who had already slain and ingested an uncounted number of Delhi’s nobility and yet still pretended to be picking the florets of early youth.” When Fakhru kept insisting that he praise Wazir, Zauq retorted, ‘The breasts are slightly droopy.’

This depiction was false. Mirza Fakhru was 23 and so was Wazir Khanum. It was not that Fakhru was a teenager ensnared by an older woman. He was a person of maturity and learning. He knew English also. Anyway, this was the kind of negative image that they produced, the kind of narrative that came out.

What were the resemblances between Wazir Khanum and the city of Delhi?

The impression of Delhi at that time is that it was going downhill, on a path of self-destruction, already bankrupt: intellectually, mentally, financially, administratively; in every way. It was simply not true.

Wazir also turned out to be a very different character altogether. It is true that at 14 or 15 she eloped with an Englishman. Why that happened nobody knows. I have tried to create a scenario for it, which is purely imaginary and it does not explain all the facts. But maybe she wanted to improve her life. It was quite common in those days for women, even of noble and royal families, to get entangled with Englishmen.

Anyway, I found these resemblances, these reverberations, striking. Here is this woman of refinement, who is reasonably educated, a fine poet and extremely beautiful and mentally strong. Yet every time she makes a decision it turns out against her. The first man she loves, or at least she thinks she loves, he meets an unfortunate end. She comes back and finds another who is more eligible, more attractive and compatible in terms of refinement and culture and that man comes to a bad end.

After sometime, she goes to Rampur and again finds a man of good family and status and that man dies mysteriously after she has given birth to his son. She has everything going for her but nothing does go for her. Every time she is after some goal, it’s like a will-o’-the-wisp, a phantom that she is running after. She gets close to it and just as she is about to grasp it, it eludes her.

Finally she marries a person who is third heir apparent and over the years she is with him he becomes the heir apparent. She is now directly in the line for the throne of Delhi, although the British decide to abolish the kingdom. But she is still the first lady and presided over all the women of Delhi, and a direct successor to Bahadur Shah. Again things go badly for her.

It’s just the picture of Delhi. Delhi had everything going for it, writers, philosophers, poets Sufis, administrators, horsemen, astronomers, swimmers.

Emily Parx, an Englishman’s wife, left a journal in which she described the court culture and the rich costumes of the people of the Red Fort. They were foppish and ornately dressed. In one hand they carried a quail, in another a pigeon. It was not an empty, bankrupt, effete society.

I have spent all my life reading about Hindu-Muslim culture, 18th-19th century Urdu literary culture.  I have read almost all the poetry of the time in Urdu. I have read accounts by and about the poets. Over a lifetime you go about gathering things, it’s not that you sit down and start writing. That’s also a way to do it,

So, the book is more of a story of the city.

Yes, and the people and the culture. And her life trajectory mirrors the city of that time. Delhi has so much but nothing goes right for it. I have written somewhere that 1.2 million rupees a day was the octroi realised from the merchants who entered the city of Delhi for trading in the Chandni Chowk, of which the British gave nothing to the king, who lived on a pittance. Delhi was so rich at that time. It was not a desolate wasteland which the Marathas, the Abdalis and the Pathans, everyone, had come and looted. They looted but that happens everywhere. There was always so much left and the city was filed with productive people who regenerated and rebuilt the city after every assault.

What was your process of research?

I have spent all my life reading about Hindu-Muslim culture, 18th-19th century Urdu literary culture.  I have read almost all the poetry of the time in Urdu. I have read accounts by and about the poets. Over a lifetime you go about gathering things, it’s not that you sit down and start writing. That’s also a way to do it. If you don’t know much about a subject, you sit down and start researching.

In my case, I had been living off these for years. I needed to check specific details like on what date was Shamsuddin Ahmed hanged? On what date was Wazir Khanam married to Mirza Fakhru? Things like this...what were the discussions between the English and Bahadur Shah Zafar about the succession? I read biographies of Bahadur Shah and the Mughal state but these were generic readings. The real thing about how people lived, loved and died involved my entire life and literary existence. It was buried in my subconscious in an amorphous form. Reading the complete series of the oral romance Dastan by Amir Hamza also helped me.

How did you start this literary existence? Did your family have a literary background?

No, it was not much of a literary background. You must remember that in that time, I was born in 1945, it was common for people to know poetry, to know Urdu, Persian, English if they belonged to the middle-class. To quote poetry in conversation was a part of their lives. When you wanted to make a point in a discussion you would pick on a telling couplet. It was a common thing and you did not need a special proclivity or sensibility. In my family, my father was very fond of Iqbal, so he used to recite it to me and later I started to read myself. More than my family background, which was the same as any early 20th century Indo-Muslim middle class family, Hindu or Muslim, it was the milieu that encouraged poetry recital, reading and discussing literature.

Who was your favourite writer?

At that time Iqbal, because my father used to read him to me. Then I started reading novels surreptitiously and finished two that were very famous at that time, Anwar and Shamim by Munshi Fayad Ali. I used to go to a bookbinder’s shop near my house and browse there. For me writing seemed to be a natural and proper thing to do. I started a hand-written magazine of my own. It was not any special preparation made, by the time I grew up it was in the air. I had written a short novel at the age of 15 which was serialised in a magazine coming out of Meerut called Me’yar.

At the same time, writing was not an ambition to look forward to, the ambition was to become a civil servant or a professor in some university, or to know good English or read good English. But writing remained a bylane of my existence.

Then you moved to literary criticism…

Yes, that also happened early in life, before I had started writing short stories and poetry, not really worth talking about. I realised that I should know about poets, their writing processes, and how to distinguish between one poet and the other, how to describe them, what were the poets doing? So when I went on to read more and more English in my college, I found that English literary criticism was more complex and aware and wide ranging than Urdu. I was dissatisfied by contemporary Urdu literary criticism, which was dogmatic.

It is important for a literary critic to have a thorough knowledge of the language, the poetics and the culture and worldview of the text he is examining. It is also important to know other poetry and the literary culture that produced it. I had also started asking questions like what is literature, what does it mean in our lives, why should it mean anything at all? What constitutes literature, what are its basic elements? I started writing essays that reflected these elements. Ghalib was also one of my early passions and still remains that, so I thought I had to say something about Ghalib that other people were not saying. Most people talked about his philosophical outlook, his great vision of life. I looked at him as a very interesting poet, who told me about not himself but myself.

You said somewhere that you lend charisma to a character by giving that character a past, which you have given to Wazir Khanum. Could you give me an example of some other literary character who made you come to this conclusion?

If you have read the stories from the Sun That Rose From The Earth you can see there are people who are truly charismatic and they need to be talked about. Mushafi was damned by the same person who damned Wazir Khanum, as a wishy- washy character and his writing as trash. Muhammad Husain Azad was more interested in the struggles and quarrels between poets and how this man always came out at the receiving end. He was blamed for his prolific writing.

At that time Ghalib had written a small Diwan and very cleverly he had excised two-thirds of it and what he produced was only one-third of what he had written. That became the benchmark for other writers, to write short and pithy books. And so Mushafi was condemned for his long books. He was also supposed to be very quarrelsome.

But when you go into his poems, my god! He was so versatile, so powerful and vibrant. Here is a man who enjoys life, enjoys loving and fighting and his poems. I tried to get to his life. He had a colourful life but you need to have a sympathetic understanding of the subject rather than being moralistic. Azad adopted a very colonial outlook so as not to annoy the British. These people were our sources and our scholarship was so blinkered.

You have written four volumes on Mir...

Yes, a scholar called Abdul Haq, who is credited for discovering a lot of texts, made a small selection of Mir. He says that Mir Sahab never smiled and even when he smiled, it was a very morose and sad smile. This person did not see the diversity of Mir’s verses, which are filled with references to the body, to homosexual relationships. At that time a poet was considered great only if he was adept at all kinds of subjects, so it’s skewed scholarship that says his verses are only about sadness and about being madly in love and about the cruel beloved. He talked about every aspect of life. This man is laughing at himself, at you and at the beloved and also abusing her. So you make a partial selection and call him a man who never smiles! Another important critic Majnooh Gorakhpuri, who is supposed to have revived interest in Mir, wrote about him in a similar vein.

When I read the selection, I thought this is pilpila, colourless, bland. Where is the great poet? So I read his entire collection. He is so direct, he stabs you in the heart. He is not like Ghalib, he is not convoluted, he is not an intellectual. He is not looking at life through a philosophical prism like Ghalib. He is just looking at life through his heart. He is like a man who speaks to you like a friend whispering into your ears.

I have tried to tell people that we had a past, a glorious, vibrant, literate culture, a culture that knew how to defend itself. This is a culture worth knowing and retrieving. I also wanted to rehabilitate these poets. Even Ghalib, who is depicted in stereotypical terms that he was a difficult person and very poor, difficult to understand. But he was a very different man, a complete man, a bad man and good man at the same time. To make you understand them as human beings and poets. I also wanted to repay the debts that I owe them and to compensate for the mischief by Urdu literary historians who blindly followed the guidelines drawn by the English. Even a very respected Urdu scholar once told me, ‘Mir! Arre Woh to Khet Khet mein, ek sher Milta hai!’ (His poetic output is very sparse, you can find one in every field!)I had to compensate for the loss inflicted by this Urdu scholarship.

Why did you decide to translate these books into English?

People asked me to. My daughters asked me. The byproduct has been that more people have access to these texts and personalities now. But I see myself as an Urdu writer. I had vague ambitions of writing in English as my English was very good. But later I realised, very soon before I started writing, that I can’t compete in the dominant metaphors and narratives in English literature.

Penguin wanted to get it translated in all the Indian languages; first they published in Urdu, then a Hindi translation. But they didn’t get anyone in English, so they asked me to do it. Five years passed and then my daughters started to pester me, why don’t you do it? As a dutiful father, I agreed.

You said somewhere that Urdu is a language of love and English is a language of hate. Why did you say that?

Yes, I said that. Not of hate, what I meant was that in Urdu there are at least 18 words for love, but English has only one word. But for hate they have many words while we have only one word, nafrat. I don’t speak Hindi but if I have to, I can use the word ghrina, which means a moral and physical revulsion to something. So, it’s quite true that we have more words on love, while English has more on hate.