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The Mirror of Beauty

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Penguin India

Pages: 984 Rs. 899

An incandescent star, a polyphonic constellation

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s 984-page tome is one of the most ambitious novels written in recent times. It brings alive 19th century India like few other works of art, writes Omair Ahmad.

OMAIR AHMAD  14th Sep 2013

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Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

hamsur Rahman Faruqi's The Mirror of Beauty is one of the most ambitious novels written in recent years. Ostensibly the story of a 19th Century beauty, Wazir Khanam, and her life and loves during the last decades of Mughal India, the book is a commentary on the politics of the time, as well as a very successful attempt at bringing alive the focus on beauty that resides at the heart of the Hindustani/Urdu value system. Wazir Khanam was a real person, the mother of the celebrated Delhi poet, NawabMirza Khan, better known as Daagh Dehlvi, and the wife of Mirza Mohammad Fakhru, the son of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. In Faruqi's novel, these are all minor stars revolving around the shining moon of Wazir Khanam, sitare to her chand.

It would take an incredibly accomplished author to successfully attempt such an endeavour; luckily Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is not only a great writer, but is also one of the greatest living Urdu critics. Many of us with an interest in the politics and poetry of the late Mughal period have arrived at an understanding of poets such as Jaffar Zatalli or Mir Taqi Mari through the works of Faruqi. The book was originally published as an Urdu novel, Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman (loosely: There Were Many Moons In Skies Above Us) seven years ago to much critical acclaim and some commercial success. Faruqi worked on the translation himself, and the result captures the joy of Hindustani without losing the crispness of English storytelling. Although at times the style of writing is at odds with the narrow confines of the English language, leading to some hallucinatory passages that do not fully read well.

Faruqi is at his most formidable in the details that he uses to bring to life the 19th Century. He begins by telling us about Wazir Khanam's great-grandfather, Mian Makhsusullah, a painter from Hindal Walika Purvah in Kishangarh, Rajputana. Faruqi not only describes the town, its name and origins, but gives a moving account of how the colours required by the painters are created, acquiring their distinctive beauty. The nature of portrait painting – that it be done from a stylised ideal, a "Radha", or banithani – rather than from a living original – is brought out. To draw from an original would be intrusive, crude, even profane, and illustrated through an exquisitely told story of an honour killing that lays waste to the village, and forces Makhsususallah to flee to Kashmir. In Kashmir, the painter learns different work, including artistry on wood, until he discovers his life's great joy in the art of designing carpets. And we still have two generations to go before Wazir Khanam's own story begins!

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Faruqi worked on the translation himself, and the result captures the joy of Hindustani without losing the crispness of English storytelling. Although at times the style of writing is at odds with the narrow confines of the English language, leading to some hallucinatory passages that do not fully read well.

All of these details are intensely gripping, each small sides story presented like a fully crafted Mughal miniature painting. Even interludes, such as one in which Madhavrao Scindia is made vice-regent by the Peshwa– who is himself the vice-regent to the Mughal Emperor – in 1792, give the broad political context within which such lives are lived. They are fully described and richly detailed. These give the context within which Wazir Khanam comes alive. Married at a young age to the Englishman Marston Blake, who is denied a formal marriage by the spitefulness of the British authorities, she is then enmeshed into a life of intrigue and potential destitution as she navigates the deadly politics of Delhi, losing lovers to political machinations, and surrendering her children as she fights for her freedom.

iven the nature of the times he describes, crudeness, confrontationand insult are all present, as suitor after suitor flings themselves after the beauty of Wazir Khanam, and she tries to fend off the unworthy, while desperately trying to find happiness in the love of the noble (who are also noble of purse, it must be noted). One of the best such examples is when William Fraser, the Political Resident of East India Company in Delhi, tries to force his entourage into Wazir Khanam's residence, and is blocked by cudgel bearers deployed by Navab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, whom she actually loves. One of Fraser's horsemen rides up, and demands of a cudgel-bearer:

"Hey You! You pecker poker of your own mother! Have you lost your limbs? Do you dare not give way to the Senior Sahib Bahadur's Elephant?" The cudgel-bearer, a true Mewati, tall, muscular and hardened...spoke in cold, measured tones, "Telanga sahib, do put a bit of rein on your tongue, and also on your ancient pony a bit. If you hustle it further by a hand's length, the point of this staff will sink into its jaded liver."

Faruqi goes on to explain that, "the word 'Telanga' was a deliberate insult, for it was used for the comparatively short-statured, dark soldiers from the south who were reputed to be uncouth and somewhat cowardly." It is in capturing such detail, such nuance even in insults, that Faruqi brings the scenes to life. This is also possible because many of these issues, such as the North-South divide and insults based on regionalism, are very much a part of our culture even today. In some parts of India, the courtesies that Faruqi brings out are still alive. We can see that beauty, through a darkened mirror maybe, but still there. As the exchange above illustrates, Faruqi has the craft to easily paint a persona in a few deft sentences. Almost from introduction the characters feel alive and real, and most intriguingly, almost all retain a sense of mystery, a certain privacy.

E.H. Carr wrote that no person can be understood apart from their historical context. Faruqi's great accomplishment is bringing alive not only Wazir Khanam, but the time that she lived in, and the value of beauty as an essential component in music, art, literature and even in the spoken word around which Hindustani values flourished then. In doing so he brings alive our past in all its splendour and that is a magnificent achievement.

 
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