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Shamsur Rahman Faruqi: اند تھے سر آسما (The Mirror of Beauty)

When published in Urdu in 2006, this book was hailed as one of the great Urdu novels. I am not even vaguely competent to judge whether this is the case, though I do have one other candidate on my website – Qurratulain Hyder‘s آآگ کا دریا (River of Fire). Interestingly enough, Hyder gets mentioned in the book under review. Whatever the case, it is certainly a superb novel and we must be grateful to Faruqi for translating his novel into English – all 950+ pages of it – and to Penguin for publishing it. It tells the story of a historical character – Wazir Khanam, a beautiful woman who had an eventful life in nineteenth century India – though it also tells of art, of how India was a major centre of art and culture well before the British arrived (and after they left) and of some of the important families of India. Above all, it is a homage to these families and this art and culture.

Though we learn of Wazir Khanam early on and see how her first relationship came about and learn that she was the mother of the famous poet Dagh (she is not mentioned in the article linked), much of the early part of the book is set in the present tense and then before she was born. Indeed, she is not born till just before page 200. After the initial story of her first relationship, we move to the present day, where two Indian researchers meet in the British Library. One, called Faruqi, is researching the genealogy of distinguished families. The other turns out to be a descendant of Wazir Khanam and is looking for old Mughal paintings. When they get to know one another, he shows Faruqi a copy of a painting believed to be of Wazir Khanam, which he has stolen from the British Library. This will be the first of several painting of women done in the Kishangarh style. These paintings, often inspired by the Bani Thani painting, will have a profound effect on men who see the painting. The story continues with the ancestors of Wazir Khanam, primarily on the male side (a handy genealogy is given in the front). Faruqi tells us wonderful stories of the people. There is the solitary painter whose painting of a young woman has profound effects on the woman and on his village. He later turns to a special type of carpet weaving and becomes a master in that field. His son is also a devotee of art and he sees a Bani Thani painting and it has a profound effect on him. His two sons track down their grandfather’s origins, meet two women and marry them. The son of one of them is caught up in the Battle of Delhi. His parents are killed but he, a ten-year old boy, is taken in by a courtesan and eventually marries her daughter. Wazir Khanam is their youngest (of three) daughter.

Even as a child she is forthright and speaks her mind. She is also very charming and beautiful and soon attracts the attention of many. However, she makes it clear that, while for most women there are two options – wife or prostitute – she does not intend to follow either route. Her two older sisters are much more conservative and conventional and are at times dismayed by their youngest sister. What happens to her, we have seen at the very beginning of the book, She meets Marston Blake, a soldier in the British army, moves in with him, has two children by him and then loses him, when he is killed in an insurrection. We now get a lot more details about this, in particular about the difficult political situation Blake and his colleagues are faced with and the events that lead to his death. Wazir Khanam was not married to him and he did not leave his will so she faces losing everything but, once again, her strong personality comes to the fore and she negotiates a far better arrangement than other Indian women in similar situations. She moves to Delhi where, though welcomed by her family, she is not invited to live with them. She does, however, meet Navab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, an influential man. The description of their courtship, conducted not like the then contemporary English courtship through parents or other intermediaries, but between the two individuals, more or less as equals, is superb. They have a son who, as mentioned above, becomes the famous poet Dagh. However, the Navab has many enemies, both Indian and English and this has an effect on their relationship. It is also brilliantly described by Faruqi.

After this relationship, she is married twice more. Once again, Faruqi describes the courtship but also the events surrounding the activities of her spouse. Indeed, in these relationships, she disappears for long periods as we learn about him and his activities. We also learn a lot about the career of her son, Dagh. The story ends abruptly, when her last husband dies and, presumably, she spends the rest of her life as a widow and mother.

The book is nominally about Wazir Khanam and she does take up a lot of the novel. But it also about a lot of other things and it is this that is its charm. Above all, it is about the history and politics of the period in India (early-mid 19th century) and Faruqi gives us many stories, events and characters of the period in a style that is never boring. In particular, we learn much about the transition from Mughal power to British power, which did not happen overnight. While there are disputes between various Indian characters, it is clear for him that the various religious groups get on well and that the real enemy is the British. With the exception of Marston Blake and one or two minor characters, the British come out of it badly, being shown as devious, treacherous, racist, often sanctimonious, hypocritical and self-interested. However, this novel is not just about history and politics. It is also about the Indian culture of the period. He extols the poetry of the era and though he undoubtedly translates it well, I regret not being able to read and enjoy it in the original Urdu. We also learn a lot about Indian customs – courtship, of course, but also the whole gamut of social relationships, honour, consanguinity, law and even thuggee. He even manages to have a dig at English, pointing out many of the words English took from Urdu/Hindi. The author translated the book himself and it reads very well, in a generally formal style, presumably meant to sound like nineteenth century English, though with the occasional modern slang word (e.g. miffed!). Overall, however, this is a wonderful work and one that will undoubtedly be soon better known.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Penguin-Yatra/Scheherazade
First English translation by Penguin in 2013