A story that’s as much about the life of one beautiful woman as a narrative of the last days of Mughal India.
It is a long book. The story begins with a rambling prologue from the notes taken by a retired ophthalmologist and genealogist, Dr. Farooqui. The tone is set when the sometimes narrator who bumps into an elderly Muslim gentleman in the corridors of the British Library in London and observes his wraith-like form. He quotes from a verse by 18th century Urdu poet, Mir: “It’s just your imagining that/There’s a feeble body inside my clothes;/In fact, there is nothing there/But a mere idea of myself.”
The lines could well represent the task that the author has set himself. It is a disquisition on beauty that wraps around the life of a real-life woman named Wazir Khanam, It is also as a solid historical narrative that unravels the tumult of forces that will lead to the events of 1857, at Delhi, variously known as India’s first war of Independence and The Mutiny. To add that there are also multiple narratives on love — as Wazir Khanam catches the eye of an Englishman named Marsten Blake, who carries her off to Jaipur and sets her up in style as his Bibi — is to trivialise her journey. Particularly as this is just the beginning. Wazir Khanam’s further adventures upon his sudden death take her back to Delhi and her destiny is to be married in middle-age to the third heir to the shaky throne of Bahadur Shah Zafar 11. For these travails are in the philosophical tradition admired by Persian writers and poets on what has been called the soul’s journey in search of enlightenment through suffering.
You do not have to have listened to the tremulous longing in the voice of a singer such as the Iranian Parvaneh, lamenting over the grave of Hafiz; or to have heard the Queen of Ghazals, Noor Jahan, perform in her later years in Karachi. For what Faruqi does in his writing is to suggest the hunger for this longing. The beauty that the ophthalmologist discovers in the painting of Wazir Khanam that the elderly Muslim scholar has left behind is not just that of a family relic but a metaphor for a whole age that has gone by.
For it’s in the imagining of Wazir Khanam’s inner beauty that makes Faruqi’s writing take on an incandescent luminosity for the most part. In making Wazir Khanam the central image, he creates the idea of what North Indian society of the early 19th century could be as seen through the eyes of her poets and chroniclers. Of course, to the English-speaking readership of today, some of the circumlocutions of courtly dialogue can appear tedious. Faruqi, who wrote his novel first in Urdu, is however conscious of these effects when he undertook the task of translation. He is willing to take risks in his set pieces, as for instance in the description of Wazir Khanam’s spectacular entry into the marriage hall when she is received by two Abyssinian women guards and carried like a precious gift in front of the Emperor. The guards themselves, however, are allowed to jest in colloquial terms. This might perhaps be seen as a reflection of the conventions set by stage and cinema where the actions of the main actors are mirrored in the coarser exchanges of the menials. What makes Wazir Khanam interesting is that she inhabits an in-between space, neither royal, nor lowly born but as a woman who can make her choice, even within the constraints of her sex and conventions of the time.
In some his digressions, Faruqi resembles the author of Hajji Baba of Isfahan (1823), the Englishman James Morier; in others, he has the visionary amplitude of the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy (1957). When an interviewer from the Paris Review of Books asked him about Sufism, Mahfouz replied: “Sufism is like a mirage in a desert. It says to you come and sit, relax and enjoy yourself for a while. I reject any path that rejects life, but I can’t help loving Sufism because it sounds so beautiful…it gives relief in the midst of battle.” Faruqi’s ode to beauty provides that relief in the tumult of our own daily battles.