shamsur RahmanIndia’s literary establishment is abuzz about the recently published novel “The Mirror of Beauty,” a 984-page fictional account about the life and times of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famed Urdu poet Daag Dehalvi, set mostly in Delhi and its environs during the 19th century. A beautiful and spirited woman, Wazir mingles with the noblemen of the Mughal court of Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the English officers of the East India Company, the poets of the age and a whole panorama of other unforgettable characters.

“The Mirror of Beauty” is a translation of the original 2006 Urdu-language novel “Ka’i Chand The Sar-e-Aasmaan” by its author, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. Mr. Faruqi, 78, who retired as a top bureaucrat in the Indian Postal Service, is a leading figure of Urdu literary criticism. He spoke to India Ink in Delhi about how he created the world of 19th century Delhi for “The Mirror of Beauty” and what he hopes young readers will get out of the book.

You live in Allahabad, a relatively smaller city, and your work has mostly been read by those within the Urdu-speaking or academic world. Suddenly you have a celebrity author like Orhan Pamuk calling your book “an erudite, amazing historical novel.” What’s it been like to step into the global literary spotlight?

I feel uncertain about all this. I am not sure that I really deserve all this attention, all this lionizing. I told my editor that I feel small, knowing that you guys are building me up so much, like a colossus. I am now long past those things. I have faced so much criticism in my life, from my own people, and also I have earned praise, love and appreciation. It makes no difference to me whether it is the global environment or the backwater of Allahabad. If Orhan Pamuk writes well about me, I’m happy; if he didn’t write well, I wouldn’t mind.
Mirror of Beauty
Mirror of Beauty

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is said to be a formidable, forbidding figure. As a literary theorist and scholar of  , he looms so large that a fellow academic, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, described him as the TS Eliot of  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.