Finding Wazir

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Urdu critic, poet and novelist, on rescuing a 19th century woman from history and on reinstating the past in the present

Could the life of a woman of purdah in 19th century Delhi, bound to a largely female world of marriage and children, convey the fading grandeur of the last Mughals? Could it tell of its intrigues and warfare, or the taverns and alleys so loved of its poets?

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, legendary Urdu critic, poet, and novelist, reclining on a bed in his daughter's Delhi home, far from his Allahabad house, ponders the questions. The long day, bruised and wounded by the Delhi sun, has bled into sunset. Though evidently worn down by the heat and the festivities of a family wedding, his voice fills the room.

The 78-year-old's 2006 Urdu novel Kai Chand the Sar-e-Aasman rescued from the footnotes of history the story of a remarkable woman Wazir Khanum, known till then as the mother of the Urdu poet Daagh Dehlvi, a woman of somewhat "questionable character". "I found her because she was there, waiting to be found. It was not chance, I was looking for her, looking for a way to describe the richness of 18th-19th century Indo-Muslim culture. (When I found her, I realised) here is how I could do it. To me, Wazir Khanum represented its supreme essence," he says. A novel teeming with the riches of character, description and plot, which Faruqi has translated into English as The Mirror of Beauty (Penguin, Rs 699), it is anchored in the stream of Wazir's consciousness. It is also a sumptuous 1,000-page tribute to the sophisticated culture of the Mughal capital undoubtedly one of the greatest Delhi novels of all time.

In Wazir Khanum, Faruqi creates a heroine of immense power and character, who pushes at the limits set on her freedom as a woman, whose dusky beauty is described almost as a force of nature, who is at once conscious of the power of her sexuality and its price in the marketplace of human desires. The daughter of a Delhi jeweller, she is striking even as a teenager, her fame quickly overflowing the confines of her home. She is wilful and aware of her own intelligence and acumen: "Show me a man to whom I could be inferior," she says. In a city where poetry is a way of life, she learns the art and craft of the ghazal from masters, and writes as Zuhrah (Venus). She rejects the paltry riches of domesticity and marriage as beneath her: "I will first taste the man who wants me. I will let him stay if I like him, if not, I'll show him the door."

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