Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Doyen

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The Doyen
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
The first of a two-part interview with the veteran Urdu critic, writer, poet and theorist, who looks back on his life and times, and literature 

Eminent Urdu poet, fiction writer, critic and theorist Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, 84, has held aloft the light of literature all his life, ever since he formally began writing in 1960. His contribution to Urdu literature and criticism has been immense. An authority on classical prosody and ilm-e-bayaan (the science of poetic discourse), he has formulated fresh modes of literary appreciation, drawing on Western principles of literary criticism. 

Faruqi, an MA in English from Allahabad University, initially worked in the Indian Postal Service (1960-1968), and served as a chief postmaster-general and member of the Postal Services Board, New Delhi until 1994. Shabkhoon, an Urdu literary magazine which he started in 1966, helped bring to the fore many modernist Urdu voices for nearly four decades till it ceased printing in 2006. In 2013, he translated his 2006 Urdu novel, Kai Chand The Sar-e-Aaasman, into English as The Mirror of Beauty.  In the year that followed, he published The Sun That Rose From The Earth, a short story collection. Both the books are populated by the literary greats, including Daagh, Mir and Ghalib, of the times they are set in: Mughal era.  

Winner of the  Saraswati Samman for She’r-e Shor-Angez, his three-volume study (1991-93) of the eighteenth-century poet Mir Taqi Mir, Faruqi, in this interview, traces his life in literature, his early literary forays and experiments, his evolving art of appreciating poetry, the need among readers to cultivate a critical way to read poetry, the spirit of reading and writing that was in the air he breathed in then, etc.   

Excerpts from the interview: 
Susmita Srivastava: What were the beginnings of your literary journey?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: This question has often been asked and I’m really not quite able to provide a definite answer. All that I know or can say with certainty is that even when I was very small, I somehow had the idea that I should write. That I should be a great or a famous writer was not a consideration at all. Writing came to me naturally and not because there were a lot of writers in my family. As in other middle-class Indo-Muslim families, everybody was interested in poetry, some of them actually composed a bit of poetry, casually or by way of fun, but there was no tradition of poets in my father’s family. And by the time I was born, they had become rather religious. In my mother’s family, there was a much longer tradition of Persian and they did produce some major writers in Banaras in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries but they did not figure in history, though they were important in their own environment. So, there was nothing especially remarkable in my family conducive to my becoming a poet or a writer but it came quite naturally to me to write. I composed my first line when I was about seven or eight. It wasn’t really poetry but still: it was a conscious effort on my part to express myself.

We were all rather hard up so I couldn’t afford to buy notebooks or paper. I’d cannibalise empty pages from older notebooks, cut them into smaller pages and that would be my magazine. Sometimes, I reproduced articles, sometimes I wrote some. Occasionally, my older sister Zohra wrote a few stories and thus we went on for a few years. What I knew was that writing was a noble thing, something I should do. Much later, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I became conscious that there was a thing called fame that one could aspire to.

Growing up in Azamgarh, I was handicapped by the absence of a literary environment. Or if there was, it was way above my level. There was (and still is) the famous Shibli Academy, founded by the great scholar Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) in the last year of his life. It was then called Shibli Manzil or Darul Mussanifin, House of Writers. That, I knew, was a place of great learning: scholars would reside there. Since my father was known to them, he would occasionally go there and I with him, though I was very small. I remember Syed Suleiman Nadvi, a very noble figure with a white beard, sitting at the head of what was not really a table but more like a long, low bench around which people sat and ate in the traditional manner, serving food into their plate from the main dish. It was formal but not in a westernised way: more like the customary form practised in Indo-Muslim homes in the Nineteenth century. Syed Suleiman Nadvi went off to Pakistan in 1947. Anyway, I remember two or three dinners like that.

I was four years old when I came to Azamgarh. I remember Independence Day and Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom but it never occurred to me to write poems about these things, to respond to things happening in my immediate social context. I remember the agitation of 1942, it was very strong in my part of U.P. The districts of Azamgarh, Ballia and Ghazipur have traditionally been hotbeds of revolutionaries since 1857. I remember something of those times. That was the first time that I underwent a kind of angst. We were sent off to Banaras to my grandparents, perhaps for safety. It must have been a question of safety because it wasn’t as if the schools were closed. Then, my father tried to join us but it took him a long time because trains were not running, stations were being set fire to… And I remember the aftermath of the Quit India movement. My father was a Sub-Deputy Inspector of Schools. He used to go and inspect rural schools. Sometimes, teachers would come to him, asking for small favours or to pay their respects. I remember one of them reporting to my father during a conversation that whole villages had been put to the torch by the Englishmen and he also said that not all the houses that had been burnt had been of those people who had actively participated in the Quit India Movement. I remember the name…Vasudha Singh was the only one, he said, who had been an active participant in the Quit India movement. The English burnt all the houses out of a spirit of revenge and retribution. 

I remember those things but it never occurred to me to make them the subjects of my poems. I remember the war, for example, very well. Not only the hardships of the war, particularly felt in a large family like ours where my father was the only one supporting us, all of us being very young. I remember the decline of my father’s prosperity. For example, he used to have a pack of camel for loading his tent and other appurtenances when he went out on tour. In the city, he used to have a tonga. I remember the horse and the syce scrubbing the horse and the huge bell on the tonga, which was fixed to the mudguard of the front wheel. It needed a lot of pressure to make it ring and it had a deep, resonant sound “blll-lll-lll’ (demonstrates) but it was so hard that I couldn’t press it. It was not intended to be used frivolously by children. Then, the camel went and the tonga went and he was reduced to cycling around. I remember those things as signs of a good middle class life but they all went away gradually. There was no electricity in Azamgarh in those times. We used lanterns and I remember how we filled them with white kerosene, which was refined. Gradually, it became rarer in the market and we had to use red kerosene, which gave out a smoky flame. 

I remember all that but I was more interested in talking about myself, maybe because I was so introspective. I certainly felt oppressed in my home. There were so many of us to feed and clothe and naturally my father could not afford proper schooling for us. 

(Chuckles) I wrote a short line: “Maloom kya kisi ko mera haal-e-zaar hai.” Who knows the state of my heart or self.

Susmita Srivastava: But do you think these early social experiences, the ideas that you absorbed early on, influenced your work at a later date? In your later fiction, we find social perception and commentary. Although this commentary is essentially rooted in the past, we also hear you talking about the disconnect between the present and the past. We also perceive subtle themes of social consciousness. So, while they may not have found expression in your early poetry, do you think these experiences in some way contributed to your perception of what literature is or how you should write?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Actually, I was not writing much poetry at that time, maybe a few lines here and there. There was actually prose: stories and some attempts at writing criticism. But what I felt and what I saw in those days of the Freedom Movement, of Mahatma Gandhi, of the conflict between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress, of the contribution of the Ulema who were mostly on the side of the Congress, the oppression of the British and the way they always ranked above everything else in India (and I was also brought up in the same tradition, that English things are better): all that went into my consciousness as a person and as an Indian, about what India was or should be. There never had been communal riots in Azamgarh or in Gorakhpur where we went when I was 13 or 14. There were certainly distinctions, people were known more by their castes rather than by their individual personas.

But what impacted more on my mind was the privilege that Indian Christians used to claim and get from everybody around. I studied at a very ancient school which is still there; it was established in 1837 by an English missionary. The principal was an Indian Christian; the manager was English or Australian, certainly a white man. There were a number of children, I could see, who had been converted from other religions, Hinduism or Islam, and they tried to speak Hindi in the manner of Anglo-Indians: Hum apne Papa pas jana mangta (I want to go to my father).  And they were privileged. I felt really bad about that. Just because they had adopted the religion of the ruling class, why should they be regarded as superior to us? 

But that was how it was. Everything English was privileged, English dress, English ways of eating, of writing, of doing things, and, of course, Englishmen were better inventors, scientists and technologists. India was backward, had nothing like technology, philosophy or science. The general intellectual environment of the times was that everything English was better than everything Indian, and also better than, for example, Japanese things. “Japani maal” at that time meant something spurious or inferior, not of good quality like the English. We were told that the Chinese were all addicted to opium and gambling, they had really no governance or culture. It took me a long time to grow out of this imprinting. For example, I remember I used to feel awed by the thought that the Englishmen wrote the first Urdu grammar, compiled the first Urdu dictionary. This is scholarship, I thought, this is the love of language, they have come here and they are learning our language, codifying it. 

It was only much later that I realised that these were tools of oppression, the Englishman learned local languages in order to rule, to be better able to command. That shows the kind of mindset we had inherited from our environment and our parents. At that time, my main interest was to gain proficiency in English and may be in Urdu as an ancillary, because at that time Urdu was not very important, was a part of household activities. We all spoke Urdu, wrote Urdu, a little bit of Persian also. My father was a hard taskmaster. He would motivate me, chastise me and try to teach me things well beyond my level of understanding. He put me to school in Class 5 when I was eight years old, which was really unfair of him. But at least he did this for me: he made me aware of the power of the English language and that a mastery of English could lead to greater things for me, which, of course, in his mind was the Civil Service, maybe a better job than he had, but subservience to the English lord and nothing like a political awareness or a literary understanding. It was not a special thing with him; this was common in India in the 1930s. It was the ethos. For the so-called sharif  (respectable) people, Hindu or Muslim, it was the apogee of life to be able to command English almost like a first language and then to enter a Civil Service and attain a position of authority in the society.

Susmita Srivastava: So, your earlier social thoughts were governed by principles which you subsequently found erroneous and your early writing was also not influenced by what was around you. Can we then say that your interest in literature was completely unique to your personality?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: I would not use the word “unique” because it is a big word, a very big word in fact (laughs), but it is true that I was certainly a little apart from others. If I read novels, or if I read Urdu or English, it was as languages rather than as tools towards advancement, as enablers for me to express myself and to understand the world around me. I was certainly unique in the sense that others acquired learning with an ultimate goal to gain something, employment, power, whatever, but to me that was not very important then. 

What was more of a handicap to me was not that I had to strive to improve my English, because I really had a flair for English which my father sharpened and honed to a level much above the ordinary, but that I was interested in Urdu literature also, in Urdu poetry particularly, and I really found no true guides to lead me into the spirit of Urdu poetry. You see, my people, those who taught me and those who taught them, were all post-Colonials. They had been taught to see Urdu literature or any Indian literature, for that matter, through English eyes and naturally it was found to be deficient. Moreover, whatever excellence there was in poetry, whether in limited or less limited ways, was never laid down in black and white. 

For example, I remember as a child I once wrote an essay on Urdu poetry. Mostly it must have been copied from other people… (laughs). I tried to enumerate the special qualities of the major poets… Ghalib, Mir and Momin and so forth… and against Momin I wrote “muamlabandi.” I did not even know what the hell “muamlabandi” was! And nobody ever told me. My father showed it to his elder brother, who was a teacher of Arabic, Persian and Urdu in a school. My uncle was delighted and praised my paper but I did not have the courage to tell him that I did not understand what the term meant or to ask him to explain it. And I am sure that he wouldn’t have known either. So even the most basic terms, the tools to reach the threshold of understanding of Urdu poetry, were either not known or had been forgotten. And if they were known, they were not understood. “Muamlabandi” actually means an account of transactions, conversations or small events between the lover and the beloved. This is a typical “muamlabandi” sher (couplet) by Momin:

Yarab, visaal-e-yaar mein kyunkar ho zindagi
Nikli hi jaan jati hai har har ada ke saath

(How can I continue to be alive when I am in union with my beloved
Each and every action of hers draws my life out and kills me.)

This is a generalised “muamlabandi” which is not a very rare theme in Urdu or Persian, that it is not possible to really enjoy the beloved completely because she is so full of loverly actions that each of them kills you. 

Here is a “muamlabandi” sher from Ghalib: 

“Kaha tune ki kyun ho ghair se milne mein ruswai
Baja kehte ho, sach kehte ho, phir kahiyo ki han kyun ho.”

This kind of pointed short dialogue which refers to specific incidents is specific “muamlabandi.

Susmita Srivastava: That popular ghazal “aur dupatte se tera woh munh chhupana yaad hai” would qualify as “muamlabandi”?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi:  That, of course, is very poor “muamlabandi” from Hasrat Mohani, a third rate poet.  Behind his poem, there are other things which are not to be found in Urdu poetry at all: for example, the assumption that there’s a girl, your acquaintance or your cousin, and that you fall in love with her, take a proposition to her and that she’s shy, these things are just not there in Urdu poetry.  You see, Urdu poems are not about real love, they are about Love but they’re not love poems.

These things were not taught to us, that the extraordinary pain, the frenzy, the hyperbole of Urdu poetry are all conventions and that the over-arching assumption of these poems is that they are poems about Love without being love-poems. The nearest that they reach love-poems is in “muamlabandi.”

Susmita Srivastava: Why is it important to remain in these conventions? Can’t one break the mould and move on?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: You can but you should know what the mould is. When I began my campaign for free thinking in literature, I began with this: you can deviate from or repudiate your literary ancestors but you must know what you are deviating from. Unless you know the road, how can you go astray?

Susmita Srivastava: In that case, is there no hope for somebody who is unaware of or has not studied the past?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: I am sorry, there is no hope at all. 

I’ll give you an example. It was a very famous utterance at the time. In 1941, a famous book came out of Patna, written by Kalimuddin Ahmad (1908-983), a Cambridge-trained professor of English: Urdu Shayri par Ek Nazar. The first thing that he said was that the Urdu ghazal is a semi-barbarous form of art. It is not developed. Why? Because all the verses in a ghazal are separate, there is no central idea, there is no movement of the theme, and thus there is no organicity. Since all poems must have organicity, a ghazal, lacking organicity, is not a full poem: it is only half-developed and, therefore, semi-barbarous. A developed literary form, a civilised poem, would have a central idea, statement of theme, a beginning, a middle and an end. Now this particular indictment of Urdu poetry became extremely famous, so much so that it reached even my ears when I was very small, around 1944-45. From that date to now, the only person who has provided a refutation to this is me. I gave it when Kalimuddin sahab was still alive. But my point is that there have been lines and lines of professors who knew both Urdu and English, like Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896-1982), for example, who was a professor of English and a poet of Urdu, and who was a great admirer of these “semi-barbarous” poets, or like Ale Ahmad Suroor (1911-2002), who had post-graduate degrees in both English and Urdu. But they could not answer this question. For example, Suroor Sahab said that although it is true that there is no unity of theme in the ghazal, the entire ghazal has a certain mood or atmosphere. But if that is so, let us examine these two shers of Ghalib from the same ghazal. Ghalib is the most mainline poet. He never deviates from the main, serious line of ghazal poetry. He begins with a global opening statement on a thousand year old, time honoured theme:

Sab kahan kuchh lala-o-gul mein numayan ho gayeen
Khaak mein kya sooratein hongi ke pinhaan ho gayeen.”* 

(*By the way, the poet has to show extreme ingenuity if he is to use such a theme with a certain amount of freshness. The number of themes is limited and they are used again and again by poets. This sher has to be appreciated for, if nothing else, its use of interrogatives, “kahan” and “kya.” The power of “kahan” and “kya” is not equalled by interrogatives in many other languages, definitely not English. The miracle of Ghalib and Mir is that they understand the soul and the spirit of their language. Ghalib understands the power of interrogatives in his language and by introducing them into the sher, he goes a different route from other poets who have used this theme).

But then he goes on from that global statement to this particular one:

“Wan gaya bhi main to unki gaaliyon ka kya jawab
Yaad thi jitni duaen sarf-e-darban ho gayeen.”

When I went there (to the Beloved), the abuses (hurled at me) left me speechless 
All the benedictions I knew I’d used up on the doorkeeper

Now how can you say that these two shers have the same mood? So Suroor Sahab’s statement is incorrect, apologetic and a misguided attempt to defend the ghazal from the wrong angle. But what resulted was that serious critics, even up to my time, have criticised certain verses, calling them interpolations, out of place in the ghazal. 

Firaq sahab said that the ghazal is a series of climaxes, which is again stupid. By creating a series of climaxes, you cannot create a homogeneous, organic poem. That reply did not address Kalimuddin sahab’s point that the ghazal lacks cohesion. 

Susmita Srivastava: So, we can say that many answers were given but nobody questioned the question.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Exactly. As Mohammad Hasan Askari (1919-1978) says, each culture has the right to make its own rules for its own aesthetics and its own literary understanding. Drawing from that statement, I gave two replies to Kalimuddin sahab:

1. The definition of a poem that he adduces has been laid down only by Romantic poets. Neither do the Greeks subscribe to it nor do the modern English poets. T.S. Eliot says on numerous occasions that poetry has its own logic which is the logic of emotion, not the logic of argument. And then there are hundreds of paratactic poems which say the same thing over and over again. Where is the unity or development in those poems? The definition of poetry that Kalimuddin is talking about is Keatsian, Romantic. Coleridge spoke about organicity. Nobody said it earlier, nobody said it later. Why should we then treat is as universal?

2. If you prescribe that development means making a coherent statement, you need to take into account tenses which are the greatest factors of coherence. “Jaana (to go)” has no meaning, “gaya” (went) has a meaning, “jaoonga” (will go) has a meaning. Meaning is born of tense. But then Chinese has no tenses at all. And Arabic has only two, past and present, it has no future tense. And these are very developed languages. If these languages do not display connectivity of tense, how can we regard such connectivity as an essential feature of development?

And, finally, if your objection is that Ghalib wrote no sonnets, I raise the objection that Shakespeare wrote no ghazals. (Chuckles).

Susmita Srivastava: Apples and oranges.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Precisely. We have our own rules. How can you call coats superior to sherwanis (a knee-length coat worn by men in India)? Just because the English wear them? There’s no other reason. Our clothing is suited to our climate and culture, we go in for loose and comfortable clothes, our aim is to cover rather than reveal. So, we follow different theories of clothing. Anyway, to go back to what I was saying, the disconnect that was born because of 1857 had some very unfortunate consequences. One, we tried our best to unlearn what we had learnt from our ancestors. And we did not ask this question: if, in the English scheme of things, poetry was to be about nature, about social reforms and problems, about the widow and the orphan, about rain, what were the norms which defined poetry in their literary tradition? What were they responding to? What was the thing which made an utterance a poem? We never discovered. So, what did we do? We took up some terms from the modernisers of the late Nineteenth century, like Mohammad Hussain Azad (1827-1910) and Altaf Husain Hali (1837-1914), vague terms like nazuk-khayali (delicacy of thought), bareek-beeni (profundity), buland-parwazi (loftiness), muamla-bandi and we just applied them to our poets. What is more, nobody even attempted to explain these terms. We spoke of Ghalib’s work displaying nazuk-khayali, Momin’s muamla-bandi, Mir’s soz-o-gudaz… but where do you find these terms written down? Did their contemporaries ever say about Ghalib that he was very nazuk-khyal or about Mir that he was very soz-o-gudaz?...Fine. I agree that every generation rereads the past in its own way. This is nothing new.  But the past can be reread only if it can first be read. If they do not know what a ghazal is, how can they read it? Naturally they come up with these absurd ideas: series of climaxes, mood of a ghazal. If the ghazal has to have a mood, you lose 11 shers out of 15, you find they don’t fit.

So, our great loss was this: we were taught to look at our past with contempt. It was either non-existent or contemptible. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) writes dismissively of qissagoi and of Mir’s poetry. He can’t even quote Mir’s name properly and he denigrates the lack of nature as a theme in Mir. So, it’s as if we dumped our 500-year-old tradition of Urdu literary activity in the dustbin. At the point in history where I stand, I’ve been told that Ghalib is a great poet, Mir is a great poet, Momin is a great poet though not as great as those two, but what distinguishes one from the other is not known to anyone.

Susmita Srivastava: This is the situation in Urdu criticism today?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Even today, but absolutely such in those days. I am talking about the late Thirties and early Forties: at that time, this was precisely the situation. If anyone was saying something decisive, it was Kalimuddin sahab. And he was saying that the ghazal is a semi-barbarous form of art; ghazal writers are idiots and dealers in untruths, wasting their time; they lie in ghazals and in qasidas (a poetic form, originally Arabic, often a panegyric, written in praise of a king or nobleman), unlike in English where false praise is not offered; our poets have spent their lives creating such falsehoods, calling somebody a star in the sky and somebody the son-in-law of the sun and whatnot. 

Susmita Srivastava: So, from those days to today, is Urdu criticism…

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: More or less the same. 

Susmita Srivastava: And this is what you have been fighting against?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Let us go back to the forties. In 1943-44, as an eight-or-nine-year-old boy, I write a paper laying down that Momin’s style is muamlabandi, Ghalib’s nazuk-khayali and Mir’s soz-o-gudaz. What the hell these things mean, I don’t know. And neither do those who teach me. It was my greatest sorrow then, and still is, that there was no such person in the environment.

Not that I was a regular student of Urdu, I quit Urdu after high school; but it was my deep desire then, as it still is, to know Urdu and to understand it. Later, when I grew up, I saw… Let’s take Shibli Nomani (1857-1914). Now, Shibli is a great traditionalist. He is a moderniser as well, but not in the same way as Muhammad Hussain Azad or Hali. He is a moderniser in the sense that he wants to model Urdu poetry on what he thought was a Greek or Sanskrit model of poetry, which according to him was bereft of all figures of speech, all ornamentation, all complexity. This was his thinking. Obviously, he had not studied much English; he knew a little English, a little French, Sanskrit he did not know. But he was able to somehow access some things. Anyway, what he took from the Greeks was that poetry describes true conditions. The mimesis of Aristotle travelled through Arabic and by the time it reached him, it became photography. (Chuckles) Sanskrit tradition talked of rasas (a concept in Indian art about the aesthetic flavour of a work of art that evokes a specific emotion in the reader or audience) , in poetry, although it was not clear where these rasas were, in the poet, in the actor or in the words. Anyway, the idea was that rasas create emotion in the reader or the listener: anger, love etc. Shibli caught hold of this idea from Sanskrit. He said that unless emotions are aroused, it’s not poetry. And if it doesn’t show you a picture, it’s not poetry. But we have neither of these elements, not the one nor the other. (Laughs). Although he is a great Arabicist, a great Islamicist, a great Persianist, but he doesn’t agree. Our great moderniser, who read English and forced us to read English, himself does not understand Ghalib’s troubles or what ails Mr Mir. Then, what direction is left to us? Where do we go? All that remained were the usual clichés: soz-o-gudaz, even pathos. People even found pathos in Mir! The one who was truly familiar with Urdu poetry, he took another road. He told us via Greek and Sanskrit traditions that our poetry was not poetry. Caught between these two, we were left nowhere. 

Although I abandoned Urdu and devoted myself heart and soul to English, this thorn always pricked my heart. That was the burning question for me all the time. If these people are great, why are they great and how I can distinguish, if indeed I can, one’s greatness from another’s. Now, Ghalib had the advantage of a man like Hali, who was a moderniser and who, although he did not say it in so many words, contrived to somehow present a picture of Ghalib which would appeal to the modern mind and, therefore, to the English mind. 

For example, it somehow reached Hali that Milton said that poetry should have truth, passion and simplicity. Now that chap has actually said this somewhere in passing, at the beginning of Paradise Lost. Anyhow, it reached Hali that this was said by a major English poet. And now Hali has to define these terms. So he says, truth is that which actually is. Well, a little childish, but let’s agree. But then he goes a step further: he says truth is also that which is in the poet’s mind. Now, that opens a path for Ghalib! A poor guy who dealt in abstractions all his life, how to fit him into the concept of truth? This is how Hali does it: if the intent of the poet shows that he believes in these things, they are the truth. (Laughs) And here is Milton to ratify Ghalib’s poetry. Later on also, of course, we had other people of the same type, such as Abdul Rehman Bijnauri (d. 1918). He was much regarded though he died young. The opening sentence of his unfinished essay on Ghalib is that there are two books in Hindustan which can be called ilhami, gospel: the sacred Vedas and the Diwan-i-Ghalib. (Chuckles) That kind of finishes it, doesn’t it, what do you say now? A man who drops names like Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Verlaine sixty times in a fifty-page essay, who has the guts to question him? But nobody addresses the question of what Ghalib was actually doing.

Susmita Srivastava: What you’ve told us so far is that these were wrong approaches to Urdu poetry. What, then, in your view, was the right approach to Urdu poetry?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: The first thing to do is to ask these guys what poetry is.

Susmita Srivastava: But haven’t you just been telling us that poetry has different definitions in different cultures?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: No, I mean that you must ask the poet. Ask Nasikh, ask Ghalib, ask Mir: what do you think is poetry?

In my young days, I was such an idiot that I wrote somewhere that Nasikh was a poet of Urdu prose, that his poetry has no poetic quality. Although I had felt shocked, during my post-graduation, reading Mathew Arnold calling Dryden and Pope masters of English prose rather than English poetry. I felt bad because we have a great, ancient tradition of humour and satire, in Persian, in Sanskrit, in Urdu. I found it amazing that such an educated man, who had influenced whole generations of writers, could so summarily dismiss them. But I can’t understand why, despite feeling this shock, I called Nasikh prosaic. I mean, why on earth did I say it? Listen to these two shers:

Main hoon ashiq anar-e-pistan ka
I love the pomegranates which are your breasts

Na hon markad pe juz anar darakht
Let there be no trees on my tomb save the pomegranate.

And, in the next sher, he says… (chuckles) and by the way, where is the “mood” we were talking about?...

Tune mugdar hilaye kyun na karein bagh-e-alam mein iftekhar darakht
You’ve been playing with dumbbells, why should not the trees in the garden of the world feel proud?

What do we do now? Should we say this is not the way it is in English, therefore, this man is not a poet? That’s what we would say, right? And so that’s what I said, but later I regretted it and wept. But now I declare that someone who cannot appreciate Nasikh cannot appreciate Urdu poetry at all. Because this is all there in it, these are its facets. The conception that the element of poetry in the ghazal should be a very pious, innocent, cousin-loving sort of thing…Hali also said that we should be very serious, there is no room for frivolity, for word play, for any linguistic mischief, for physical or emotional frivolity in the ghazal…is erroneous. It was idiotic, but Hali said it and there was no escape from him! 

Susmita Srivastava: But what about English poets like Donne who wrote poems on fleas and suchlike?  

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Who was talking about Donne? Everybody was concerned with Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats.

Susmita Srivastava: Only the Romantics.

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: At most it could be said that Dr Johnson called Donne a Metaphysical poet and ours were also metaphysical. If Donne, as Coleridge said, was a thinking poet, so was Ghalib. Ghalib’s philosophy, Ghalib’s thought, people are writing whole books on these. Nobody ever wrote about these things earlier. There have been such great critics in Sanskrit, such great practical critics like Rajasekhara (880-920 AD). He wrote a whole book but nowhere has he talked of, for example, the philosophy of Bhavabhuti (8th century). He has only written about the poems. So this discussion about Ghalib’s philosophy and suchlike, this has come from outside.


Tune mugdar hilaye kyun na karein bagh-e-alam mein iftekhar darakht

(He’s probably talking to a boy. Fair enough, let it be so. What harm does that do you? To date, nobody has been able to decide whether Shakespeare had two lovers or three and whether the third was a girl or a boy. Most probably it was a boy.)

Anyway, we were never taught these things, about Shakespeare’s concerns. We read him and if we understood, we understood and if we didn’t, we didn’t. My point is, we should ask these people. If we were to encounter Nasikh today, my first question would be, “What is poetry?” And there’s another thing. Mir died at the age of 87 or 88. In those days you were all grown up at the age of 13 or 14, you got married, you assumed your employment or whatever you were doing, teaching in school if you were a teacher. So let us say Mir started writing poetry from the age of 17. 70 years of literary practice, was he just goofing off? Just because someone has a BA degree in English, do they know more than Mir? Can they say that Mir was wasting his own time and theirs, writing pointless, meaningless verses all seventy years?

Take Nasikh. There’s a whole culture which is in love with Nasikh, including Ghalib. Even Muhammad Hussain Azad, who did not have much love for Nasikh, says that when Nasikh’s ghazals came from Lucknow to Delhi, everybody, Ghalib, Zauq and others, wrote ghazals in his style, using the same metre and rhyme schemes. There was a huge cultural segment in this country, spread across many states, which regarded him as a master. Were they suffering from a collective insanity? To what extent can your self-denigration go? That was our greatest loss: that we were taught to denigrate our past. Not deny it: that would still have been tolerable because it would leave room for someone to later discover it, but to denigrate it. There is no culture in the world except the post-colonial culture in India which suffered such a loss. And that included all Indian languages but particularly Urdu, because Urdu was seated in Delhi, in the heartland of India, and its great figures spoke in the voice of India, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Raja Jai Kishan Das (1832-1905), Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-1885) while he was in his senses, and others… People in this wide swathe of land, eight or nine hundred miles, Patna to Lucknow to Delhi, were told that they were collectively mad because they enjoyed the poetry of a man like Nasikh, who was not a poet at all. This is what I tried to unlearn all my life.

Susmita Srivastava: Would you say, in that case, that it is incorrect to apply preconceived standards, particularly western standards, to Urdu poetry? We should rather start from the poetry and then formulate standards? We admit that Ghalib’s and Nasikh’s poetry is great and, having said that, we try to figure out what poetry is, based on the pre-established fact that this is great poetry?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: Precisely. And now I will come to my third conclusion, which came to me much later. I wrote this somewhere and I was very sure that I was on the right track. Standards of literary beauty are universal. They are applicable everywhere. Were it not so, we would not be able to enjoy the plays of Euripides 2,500 years after they were written. But one day I asked myself: who told you that Euripides is a great writer? (Chuckles) You didn’t discover him for yourself. You were taught this, you read this in books. You learnt about Greek tragedy, about epics and so on. You were told. How would you have known if you had not been taught? I mentioned earlier that I have no perspective on modern Hindi literature. No matter how great a Hindi poet is, I really can’t judge where the beauty comes from. Old Hindi is relatively accessible to me. Although I don’t understand it perfectly, but if I read Braj or Awadhi poetry, I will know where the beauty lies, whether it is Mulla Daud’s Chandayan or Tulsidas’ Ramayan. But today’s modern Hindi poetry, I have no perspective on it. I am told that Nirala is a great poet, Pant is a great poet, Kunwar Narayan and Kedarnath Singh are great poets. If you say it, fine, I accept it. But I have no way of judging these people. So, how did I come to appreciate Euripides? Because I was taught.

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