The experience of reading a masterpiece and its translation by the same author

A few years ago, I got a request from a well known publisher to go through Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aasman. Though devoted to publishing Indian language titles in translation, the lady on the other end of the phone had no acquaintance with Urdu. “You must read Shamsur Rehman Faruqi’s book she said, adding, “I am told it is really moving well.” It was an unusual request, considering I hardly review Urdu books, unless of course they come with a translation.

She sent me a copy of the book. It was a voluminous one, some 850 pages. As a couple of books of Saadat Hasant Manto and Ismat Chughtai, each not much more than 200 pages, had me engrossed, Faruqi’s book lay on my shelf for a while. Until one day, I picked up the novel, more with the idea of knowing about the book from the jacket flap and introduction than reading it then and there. I had not known Faruqi to be a novelist, my acquaintance with him being through Shab Khoon, a nuanced literary journal that he edited.

“Faruqi’s novel is a true character sketch of Urdu-Persian poetry and Indo-Islamic culture,” the jacket warmly declared. I gladly bought the idea. For the next many, many warm days and mellow evenings, Kai Chand... occupied my mind space. I soon learnt it was among lighter works of the author-critic, who has authored a four-volume study of Mir Taqi Mir besides an equally prolonged exercise, Daastan-e-Amir Hamza.

Well Kai Chand... was more than half a decade ago. The time since has been well spent, as far as Faruqi is concerned.

The other day, history came calling. This time in a gesture not too frequent in literary circles. Faruqi has come up with a translation of his best-selling book. Called The Mirror of Beauty — the title having been arrived at after considerable discussion and deliberations between the publishers, author, his family and well wishers — it is a 1,000-pager that expects you to have the patience of a monk to finish it! It also gives you the wisdom of one, and rewards you with prolonged hours of enlightenment. Again, I opened the book on a note of curiosity: could Faruqi exhibit similar felicity with the language here as he did in the Urdu original? Could he paint with words as well as use them as a doctor’s scalpel?

Now, after more than a few pages of the life of Sophia, Salim and Wasim Jafar and Wazir Khanam, I can happily say that Faruqi, the English writer, is in no danger of being called the country cousin of the Urdu writer. Rather than taking the help of a translator, Faruqi has taken destiny in his own hands. In the novel that minutely recreates the late 19th Century and narrates the story of Wazir Khanam, his phrases are at times splendid, at others befuddling; his eye for retaining the less-than-obvious and side-stepping the more obvious, second to none. More so in the English version, Khanam comes across as a woman of many hues, now a temptress, now a smart woman using men for her convenience, now stoutly defending her territory. A woman of not inconsiderable strength, she is also the reason why the novel does not slip into the realm of fantasy. Rather, it holds the interest of a history student, myself included. History is not a bore or confined to a leaf or two from fading memory. It helps expose a society, removes many cobwebs from assumed polity of the times.

The novel comes with the recommendation of luminaries such as Orhan Pamuk, Mohammed Hanif and Nadeem Aslam. The expressions such as “The Koh-i-noor of Indian novels” and “an amazing novel” will massage Faruqi’s ego. For a true lover of his works they are just a reassurance that Faruqi’s admirers now cut across the limitations of language and land. Maybe, The Mirror of Beauty is the beginning of many beautiful offerings from the seasoned man.

Incidentally, many, many summers ago, Faruqi started his career with the Indian Postal Service. From the evidence on offer, his latest epistle shall not go unread. Or unappreciated.

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