The Fairest

The Mirror of Beauty

Book: The Mirror of Beauty

Author: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Price: Rs 899

Pages: 984

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi begins The Mirror of Beauty with two quaint characters, one a genealogist and the other a lover of old books and manuscripts, who provide an entry into the enchanting world of this novel. It is clear that this is a novel for the informed, the initiated, the cognoscenti. Faruqi's comments make it clear that, above all, he wrote it for himself, distilling the quests and preferences of a long literary life. What you take away from the book will depend on how much you bring to it.

The publication of Kai Chand thι Sar-e Aasman (2006) was an event in Urdu/Hindi literary circles. Faruqi has a formidable reputation, having worn many hats in his career as a trend-setting critic, scholar, editor and translator. Many who couldn't read Urdu or Hindi eagerly awaited the English version. Now that it is here, I wouldn't be surprised if it sells more than the Urdu or Hindi versions. Great contemporary fiction writers of the world — Kundera, Marquez, Eco, Pamuk — sell much more in translation than in the original language.

The narrator goes right to the heart of the book when he says about Wasim Jafar, a descendant of Wazir Khanum, the protagonist of the book: "… he rejected the notion that the past is a foreign country and strangers who visit there cannot comprehend its language …" The past is not a foreign country for Faruqi, steeped as he is in the literary culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, a culture that represented the best of Indo-Muslim heritage, a period in which a galaxy of Persian and Urdu ('Hindi' in Faruqi's characterisation) poets appeared on the scene, each more accomplished than the other. Faruqi's endeavour in the novel is to recreate that age and its mores as exemplified in its poetry, music and painting, through the persona of Wazir Khanum, a woman of near-perfect beauty and accomplishments, grit and grace. In the 1000-odd pages, divided into seven books, 68 chapters and two interludes, Faruqi deals with the antecedents and vicissitudes of Wazir Khanum's life, the declining years of the Mughal empire, the tenuous relationship between the would-be rulers and the Haveli (the Red Fort) and the colourful officials of the Company Bahadur, all historical figures, who combined a certain admiration for Delhi's culture with utmost ruthlessness to any kind of opposition to their authority.

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