Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, towering figure in Urdu literature, dies at 85

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Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, towering figure in Urdu literature, dies at 85
Faruqi has been credited among scholars with the revival of Urdu literature, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries.

by Shalini Venugopal Bhagat

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, a creative and critical voice in Urdu literature for more than a half-century, died Dec. 25 at his home in Allahabad, India. He was 85.

The cause was complications of COVID-19, his daughter Mehr Afshan Farooqi said. (Faruqi changed the spelling of his surname in the 1980s.)

Faruqi has been credited among scholars with the revival of Urdu literature, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries. His output over the years as a scholar, editor, publisher, critic, literary historian, translator and acclaimed writer of both poetry and novels was varied and prolific.

His primary focus was on retrieving Indo-Islamic culture and literature from the effects of colonialism. The left-wing Progressive Writers’ Movement had been in vogue since the 1930s, when India was still under British rule. Literature that did not conform to its Marxist ideals of revolution had fallen out of favor. In 1966, when Faruqi became the founding editor and publisher of the modernist literary journal Shabkhoon, he provided a platform for other voices and mentored many young writers to write what they wanted, in the style they wanted.

In addition to commissioning all the writing in the magazine, Faruqi edited every piece and wrote poetry, criticism and Urdu translations of important works. He did this work in addition to his job as a civil servant with the Indian Postal Service.

“He literally burnt the midnight oil to keep editing his magazine and writing his books,” Farooqi, his daughter, said in a phone interview.

His wife, Jamila Farooqi, provided emotional and financial support to keep the magazine in print for nearly 40 years. “Without Jamila, there would have been no Shabkhoon, and without Shabkhoon my struggle to become a writer of my kind would never have ended,” Faruqi told the newspaper Mint in 2014.

Faruqi’s daughter recalled a childhood in which she and her younger sister, Baran, were taught to recite Urdu and Persian poetry from a young age. Their mother would sometimes lose her temper at their father’s piles of books, stacked high in every room of their large home. Faruqi’s collection included several thousand books, among them many first editions and other rare volumes in several languages. A polyglot, he was fluent in English, Urdu, Hindi, Persian, French and Arabic.

Faruqi was also a noted critic. He published several books of commentary, the most famous being his four-volume exploration of the 18th-century Mughal poet Mir Taqi Mir. That collection, “Sher-e-Shor-Angez” (“Soul Stirring Verses”), “not only made vivid why Mir was so admired by all poets of the past but also hugely informed us about the poetics of the classical Urdu ghazal” — an ancient style of Arabic poetry — C.M. Naim, a professor emeritus of the University of Chicago, said in an email. “Fundamentally, these writings instructed the reader in reading classical poetry and prose fiction with a much richer sense of what those earlier authors had tried to achieve.”

Faruqi also brought awareness to Dastangoi, a storytelling performance art form believed to have originated in the eighth century that culminated with the publication, in the 19th century, of the Amir Hamza Dastan, a 46-volume account of the adventurer Amir Hamza and his many romantic and heroic exploits. Over 20 years, Faruqi painstakingly collected and researched every volume and published several books, inspiring his nephew Mahmood Farooqui to revive the forgotten art.

“What he achieved by delving so deeply in the world of Dastans, and charting his solitary path through that,” Mahmood Farooqui wrote in an essay published in 2019, “is akin to finding a whole chest of treasures from a mound that had been left for garbage by other onlookers.”

Faruqi’s book “Early Urdu Literary Culture and History,” written in both English and Urdu and published in 2001, has been described by scholars as the best available account of the history of Urdu language and culture.

For his contributions to Indian literature, Faruqi received two major honors, the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1986 and the Saraswati Samman in 1996. He was also awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honor, in 2009.

Shamsur Rahman Farooqi was born Sept. 30, 1935, in Pratapgarh, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India. His father, Khalil ur Rahman Farooqi, was a deputy inspector of schools, and his mother, Khatoon Farooqi, was a homemaker. Life was not easy in the household; food was rationed carefully among Shamsur and his 12 siblings.

“He liked melon a lot and longed for an extra slice,” Mehr Afshan Farooqi, his daughter, said in a remembrance on Twitter, “but was always denied.”

The family moved frequently to accommodate the demands of his father’s job. A voracious reader, young Shamsur spent his every free minute reading books, sometimes even while walking to school. The works of Thomas Hardy were particular favorites.

When he was in the eighth grade, he started a handwritten children’s magazine called Gulistan (Rose Garden), with the help of his older sister. He started writing stories as a teenager and submitted them to magazines. Once when his mother sent him to a grocer, he discovered, to his delight, that the grocer had wrapped the goods in the page of a magazine on which his story was printed.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Maharana Pratap College in Gorakhpur and his master’s in English from Allahabad University. There he met Jamila Hashmi, who came from a wealthy liberal family of landowners and was one of the few female Muslim students studying for a master’s degree. The two married in 1955, soon after Faruqi got his degree.

Faruqi taught English literature for three years before applying for a civil service job. He joined the Indian Postal Service in 1958 and rose up the ranks, ultimately retiring as a board member of the Posts and Telegraphs Committee.

He published his first full-length novel, the historical “Kai Chaand The Sar-e-aasman” (“The Mirror of Beauty”), in 2006, when he was 70. Set in 19th-century Delhi, it tells the story of Wazir Khanum, the mother of Urdu poet Daagh Dehlvi. Translated into English by Faruqi in 2013, the book was widely acclaimed.

He was midway through several book projects when he learned he had COVID-19 in mid-November. After he was released from a hospital, he stayed with his daughter Baran in New Delhi before going home.

In addition to his two daughters, he is survived by four grandchildren and eight of his siblings. His wife died in 2007.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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