Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is said to be a formidable, forbidding figure. As a literary theorist and scholar of Urdu literature, he looms so large that a fellow academic, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, described him as the TS Eliot of Urdu criticism. Eliot, famously, worked at a bank, while Faruqi, equally incongruously, was a career civil servant, employed by the Indian Postal Service. There is little evidence of that career in his conversation, peppered with allusion to French theorists, and imperious manner; he has a reputation for treating interviewers with asperity. In short, this is not a man who suffers fools. And journalists are nothing if not fools. Foolish questions, partially informed questions, are the operating currency of journalism. Unlike scholars, journalists have to be generalists, pick up information as widely and indiscriminately as possible and hope to perform, if only for the length of one piece, a convincing impression of familiarity with the subject at hand. Some readers might buy the performance (it is, after all, for their benefit); experts are likely to scoff.
So it was with some fear that I, knowing little of Urdu literature beyond some Ismat Chughtai and a smattering of the obvious poetry in translation, approached my meeting with Faruqi. In the event, he could not have been more engaging, more generous. Avuncular would be the wrong word — at 78, he is still sharp, still capable of anger — but he is solicitous, forgiving of callowness and as eager to talk as possible in the middle of a long day of successive interviews. We meet in Delhi, where he has come from his home in Allahabad for the launch of his The Mirror of Beauty, his own translation into English of his 2006 novel Ka’i Chand the Sar-e Asman. He is ensconced on a divan in his daughter’s flat in a quiet, leafy part of Jamia Nagar.