Jate hue kahte ho qayamat ko milenge
kya khub qayamat ka hai goya koi din aur
My beloved bhaiya, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, departed this world for the next on 25 December 2020, leaving our entire family with a lifetime of memories and an incredible legacy for generations to come. We had all gone to welcome him back home that morning, but destiny had other plans.
It was around noon when we stood around him, clinging to one of the most desperate human emotions that exist, hope, but “to Him we belong and to Him we return”. Bhaiya left us, numb and hollow. His favourite poet Mir Taqi Mir’s couplet came to my mind immediately: Ham ko shayar na kaho Mir ki ham ne sahib / Ranj o gham itne kiye jama ki diwan kiya. While I always thought that Mir was phenomenal in arranging an anthology of poems to express the epitome of distress, no diwan suffices to describe the state of my heart even five weeks after he passed away.
Bhaiya was not only the eldest brother but a father figure for all his younger siblings. My revered father had departed from this world almost half a century ago, and since then Bhaiya has been our friend, philosopher and guide. He was a role model for us and an iconic symbol of our family. His intellectual prowess and profound learning has always mesmerised me.
I always found him reading: a book of literary criticism, a collection of essays, a novel, or a magazine. Even at the dining table he would not waste his time in idle talk and would rather read a book. When recouping from a long and serious illness – he was a heart patient and had bypass surgery in 1992 – he surrounded himself with books and magazines. He used to say that time is limited and there is a lot more to do.
I remember very well that only two days before he was hospitalised because of Covid, he called me to find out the meaning of a Turkish word in one of Mir’s couplet, and was very pleased when I told him the meaning, which enabled him to explain the couplet fully. I am reminded of an episode in the life of the great Muslim intellectual and savant of the eleventh century, Abu Raihan Al-Biruni (d 1048). When Al-Biruni was on his deathbed, one of his friends visited him. He discussed with him a mathematical theorem and then closed his eyes forever. I can now say without any hesitation that in this quest of knowledge even in a time of adversity, Bhaiya was a true successor to Al-Biruni.
I have had the privilege of spending more time with him than with any of my other siblings. In 1966, when I was a student of intermediate my father was transferred to Benaras and I stayed with him for a year and had the opportunity of watching him from close quarters. He spent most of his spare time reading. I remember him actually burning the midnight oil for writing a comprehensive essay on the literary craft of the renowned Urdu poet and Sufi of the eighteenth century Khwaja Mir Dard which later appeared in literary journal Saba published from Hyderabad.
I also remember him directing a play Darwaze Khol Do in which his subordinates performed different roles, and which was successfully staged on the occasion of the official visit of his boss to Allahabad. During these days he was also doing the groundwork for the monthly Shabkhoon, which he published with great elan and success for four decades. I remember distinctly the hard work he put in while planning the format and the cover page of the magazine and also in collecting funds for its publication. I have had the honour of witnessing the release of the maiden issue of Shabkhoon in February 1966 in Allahabad’s famous open air restaurant Gazdars.
My sojourn with Bhaiya was memorable in innumerable ways. He took special care of my daily requirements and took me with him to all the literary gatherings, including monthly mushairas held in Allahabad. His lifestyle convinced me that there is no shortcut to success and inspired me to focus more and more on my studies. In 1969, when I was preparing for my BA final examination I studied William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Iqbal’s poems, the qasidas of Muhammad Rafi Sauda, and the marsias of Mir Anis with him.
Bhaiya was without any doubt a versatile genius, a scholar most extraordinary. He always preferred tahqiq – research and reasoning – over taqlid – blind acceptance of received wisdom. He firmly believed that dissent is key to progress, and questioned the longstanding and time-honoured literary canons and theories of Urdu literature. He established new norms of research on any subject he chose to write on.
In his pathbreaking book Early Urdu Literary Culture and History, he systemically and convincingly debunked almost a century old theory of the origin and development of Urdu language, and presented a totally new perspective. In the same vein, his article on Akbar Allahabadi showed the great poet in altogether a new paradigm, once again refuting century-old views of his poetic genius.
Bhaiya’s learning was not confined to Urdu language and literary culture. He was equally at home in English, Persian and, to some extent, in Arabic and French. He was arguably the only scholar in India who could speak fluently and with authority at the same time on Mir, Ghalib and Iqbal, Hafiz, Saadi and Rumi, Shakespeare, Elliot and Thomas Hardy, and Kalidas, Anandvardhan and Acharaya Mammat.
He always came to my rescue when I translated Persian letters exchanged between Mughal Emperors and Ottoman Sultans. Scholars familiar with Persian epistolography are aware of the intricacies of the art of writing diplomatic letters, abounding with similes, figures of speech and metaphors, in the early modern period. He explained to me the nuances of Persian language, which helped me a great deal in translating these medieval documents.
Bhaiya was also fascinated by history. He would discuss with me every new book published on medieval history. Last year he asked me to read Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun and Parvati Sharma’s Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal. Later he borrowed from me Ruby Lal’s Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan and Manimugdha Sharma’s Allahu Akbar: Understanding the Great Mughal in Today’s India. Subsequently we discussed the relative merits and demerits of these books.
As Bhaiya’s name and fame spread far and wide as a literary critic par excellence, he was flooded with requests from upcoming and established authors and poets to comment on their works. He was so exasperated with this consistent demand on his time that one day he told me he was thinking of quitting writing.
I related an episode in the life of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia (d 1325), which his disciple Amir Hasan has recorded in Fawaid al Fuad. Once, the great saint became so irritated with the demand on his time from his admirers and devotees that he decided to quit Delhi and reside elsewhere. That very day he met a young man in the mosque. The youth instantly recited the following couplet: Aan roz ki mah shudi name danasti / Ki angusht numai aalame khwahi shud (The day you had become the moon, didn’t you know that people’s fingers would be raised towards you). He perhaps meant that stardom is a gift from god and one should not shy away from it after becoming a celebrity. Needless to say, Bhaiya enjoyed this hikayet immensely.
Bhaiya had a passion for collecting rare books. When I was in Oxford (1994-95), he once called me to visit a rare bookshop in Oxford and look for a few rare books, one of which was a first edition of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s collection of essays published in 1824. He also had $300 sent to me from USA to avoid any burden on my pocket.
He had likewise asked our nephew Mahmood Farooqui, a Rhodes Scholar, to search for a rare volume of Dastan-i Amir Hamza, which we eventually found in the Indian Institute library of Oxford University. In fact, one of the prized possessions of his personal library of roughly twenty thousand books is all the 46 volumes of the Dastan. This is the only collection of its kind in the world.
Bhaiya loved his siblings very much. He always shared our moments of joy and grief. Whenever I visited him, he would immediately call for tea and snacks. He would stop working on his computer and we would discuss matters related to family and the current state of national politics. He was kind enough to dedicate the fifth volume of his monumental Sahiri, Shahi, Sahebe Qarani; Dastane Amir Hamza ka Mutal’aia (2020) to me and my late lamented elder brother Najmur Rahman Farooqi. He was extremely disappointed by the way Indian politics had unfolded in the recent past, and was wary about the future of the Muslim community in India.
Bhaiya’s faith in the religion he professed was equally strong. In the last few years, he was unable to perform daily prayers or observe the fasts of Ramzan owing to physical infirmity, but he had great regard for religious rituals. Last year when we were unable to perform Eid prayers in the mosque because of the pandemic, he made special arrangements for these prayers at his residence.
He had also given instructions to inscribe a particular Quranic verse, which he had himself typed on a piece of paper, on his tombstone. We were with him when he was brought to his residence from Delhi by an air ambulance. He passed away on his bed so peacefully that for some time we thought that he had gone to sleep.
I saw a faint smile on his lips in his last moments. Allama Iqbal’s couplet immediately came to my mind: Nishane marde momin batu goyam / Chun marg ayad, tabassum bar labe oost (Let me tell you the sign of a momin / He welcomes death with a smile on his lips). Bhaiya lived the life of a momin and died as one.
NR Farooqi is a former Vice-Chancellor of Allahabad University, a Fulbright Scholar, a Visiting Professor at the Centre of Islamic Studies, Oxford University, and a former president of the Indian History Congress.