Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2014

The Mirror of Beauty, by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, translated by the author

The Mirror of Beauty It’s always interesting to discover a whole new culture through reading. As a teenager I discovered the world of 18th and 19th century Britain through the great classics of English literature, and throughout my life I’ve read European literature about the period, but until now (with the exception of The Siege of Krishnapur by the Anglo-Irish author J.G. Farrell) I had read almost nothing of 19th century life in India.  The Mirror of Beauty plugs this gap with a sumptuous portrait of the Mughal Empire, narrated by a variety of voices.

The novel is derived from the real life story of Wazir Khanam, the mother of the famous Indian poet Dagh and her lineage of artistic ancestors: a painter called Mian Makhsusullah, Salimah his wife, and their son Muhammad Yahya and his wife Bashirunnisa.  They have twin sons who are musicians, Yaqub and Daud Badgami, married to Jamila and Habiba.  Muhammad Yusuf Sadahkar is the son of Yaqub and Jamila, and he is a craftsman in gold and silver.  These ancestors represent the culture of artisanship which flourished in the Mughal civilisation.

But of course, all these creative ancestors are male, and the triumph of this novel is to depict the life of a strong and decisive woman while also showing with disconcerting clarity just how circumscribed women’s lives were in this period of India’s history.  Their sphere is entirely domestic.  They may, as Wazir does, compose poetry, but they may not submit it anywhere or participate in the literary world.  Women are expected to observe purdahso that men cannot see them.  They must cover themselves in the presence of men, and must observe physical segregation, unable to leave zenanah, i.e. the spaces set aside for them.  They have very little agency in their own lives…

Wazir is the youngest of three sisters, but she eschews the cultural norms of her society.  Her sisters do what is expected of them: Anwari marries respectably (at twelve years of age!) and lives a pious life; and Manjhli becomes, like her mother, a docile courtesan.  But Wazir Khanam is fiercely independent, wilful and proud.  She is not interested in applying herself to anything much except the art of pleasing men in order to command them.

Faruqi, who is a leading Indian poet and expert in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu literature, has created a brilliant novel that traces the ups and downs of a dynamic, unforgettable character negotiating power during the decline of the Mughals.  Set in the period when the East India Company was acquiring powers of government (leading to the British Raj in 1858), the novel deplores the rapacious behaviour of the British while also acknowledging the duplicity and folly of the ruling Indian elite.  Wazir treads carefully between two worlds, eloping first with Englishman Marston Black as his bibi with the intention of enjoying a fine life on her own terms, only to discover too late that indeed she does feel ishq, an indefinable word that means something like always desiring his presence.   She also discovers to her dismay that the rank and status of Indians depends on that of the English with whom they are associated.  Most bibis are not officially married and they have no rights, not even to their own children, some of whom get sent back ‘home’ to be educated, whether their mother likes it or not.   They may, or may not be remembered in a Will, and they can be  replaced on a whim.  When things go sadly wrong, Marston Black’s brother and sister take over.   Pious Calvinists and dismissive of all things Indian, they take charge of the two children and evict Wazir.

Wazir is exceptionally beautiful and destined therefore to attract the notice of men, and rivalry over her earns her eventual husband Shamsuddin the enmity of the very powerful British Resident, William Fraser.  Whereas national rivalries today are played out on the cricket pitch, in the Mughal Empire poets competed with one another to compose ghazals and rubai off the cuff, displaying their wit and creativity by making allusions from memory to poems in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu.  Fraser lives an Indianised life and conducts soirées for the elite, providing patronage to his chosen poets.  Would-be lovers spar with poetry too, as we see when Wazir bests one man after another, though those unfamiliar with these indirect forms of repartee will (like me) need to rely on the author’s clarifications to understand the subtlety of what’s going on.  I noticed an interesting aside after one of these jousts when the author intrudes to comment that Navab Mirza (Wazir’s son) – composing a poem that is ambivalent about God depending on how it was interpreted – was lucky to have been born in a liberal age which could forgive a poet.  I think this might be an allusion to the extreme intolerance of some religious groups in India and Pakistan and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie…

Like many epics, this one is also long (900+ pages) and complex, necessitating a character list and family trees at the start of the book.  It can be hard to follow in places especially since characters boast different names at different times and in different contexts.  Wazir Khanam, for example, is also known as Chhotti Begam (Junior Lady) and later, Shaukat Mahal, and her sisters and children also have extra names as well.  Many names and titles are passed on from father to son which I also sometimes found confusing. In addition, Faruqi uses many deliberately archaic and obscure literary terms; spends pages and pages describing clothes, furnishings and architecture; and sometimes drifts off into lengthy digressions about odd aspects of life such as the history of rifles.  These quibbles aside, it is a wonderful story which focusses on three main themes:

  • the role of women, and the restrictions placed on their full participation in society;
  • the folly of the Indian elite in allowing petty rivalries to facilitate the British takeover; and
  • fate and its caprices.

Wazir’s fate is certainly cruel, and yet she remains obdurate.  Within the sweep of history and the assumption of growing power by the British, together with plot twists to make the book unputdownable, the novel traces the dilemmas she faces in each of her four relationships, complicated by the fate of her four children.   After the death of Shamsuddin, a man called Ziauddin makes his move: (not without good reason) he was brought up with a sense of hatred towards Shamsuddin, and he also resents his older brother who (under newly imposed British rules of inheritance) Gets the Lot, so he thinks he is entitled to Shamsuddin’s widow in compensation.  He thinks assumes she has no choice in the matter, and Wazir’s own son is also keen to see her married off.  But as far as Wazir is concerned:

She did not need a man, she needed a support.  But she also knew that in the world’s marketplace, they meant the same.

However she makes her own choices.  She gives Ziauddin short thrift, and marries again, though not without doubts.  And when fate strikes again, even at the ripe old age of 31 when *sigh* she is considered old, she is offered a very congenial husband (handsome, rich, royal, etc.) she is still determined to sort out her life on her own terms.

The Mirror of Beauty is shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and I read it for the Shadow Jury with Stu at Winston’s Dad and Tara at Book Sexy.

Stu’s review is here.

Author: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Title: The Mirror of Beauty (first published in Urdu as Kai Chand the Sar-e-Aasman)
Translated from the Urdu by the author
Publisher: Penguin 2013
ISBN: 9788184759938
Source: Personal library, reluctantly purchased from The US Behemoth and even more reluctantly read on the Kindle.


Responses

  1. Hmmm … not sure you’ve convinced me to read 900+ pages Lisa, but you did remind me of one of my introductions to the Mughul empire which was Salman Rushdie’s The empress of Florence! It’s set earlier in the empire, and I remember enjoying it pretty much but I recollect little about it now. How to remember all the histories and cultures we read? Defeats me!

    • One day, one day, I’m going to get into Rushdie. I’ve read two, but I’ve got others on the TBR …. including (I think) The Empress of Florence. ( I still haven’t got the R and the S shelf under control so there are double stacks in front of it and I can’t see what’s behind them unless I take it all apart. I have a vague recollection that I was going to reading nothing but authors R-S until I could see clear space, but …well… you know how it is…

  2. I like to discover other countries through fiction too.
    Although it seems to be a fantastic book, I’m a bit afraid of its size.

    However, I know someone who loves Indian books, books about India AND chunksters. This is her paradise.

    • Yes, indeed, it’s very long, and books of this length tend to be ones that I like to read when I’ve got holidays so that I can finish them in a week or so, so I know what you mean. Still, it’s easy reading, and ultimately worth it.
      What’s the longest book you’ve read in French? Les Miserables is the longest one I’ve read:)

      • In one volume? Le Comte de Monte Cristo, probably.

        • Ah, I haven’t read that one.
          BTW I am still reading my way through La Première Gorgée de Biere, I get it out every now and again and have a go. I will have more time to work on my French now I’m retired – I will need to next year when we spend a week in Cognac:)

          • You’re retired! How did I miss that?

            Lucky you: you’ll have tremendous time to read.

            I’ve never been to Cognac. They have a famous crime fiction festival.

            • LOL I only finished up on Friday and at the moment it still just feels as if I’m on the usual holidays. It will feel different on the first day of term next year when I don’t have to go to work:)

              • Congratulations on your retirement, Lisa! Beware, things will flow into the cracks of your extra time.

                • Yes, I’ve heard about this. I’ll be wary!

  3. […] Hill from the ANZ Lit blog has reviews of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi‘s The Mirror of Beauty and Jhumpa Lahiri‘s The […]

  4. This book sounds really appealing to me; I’ve heard of it before, most probably from Stu’s blog, and it’s on my TBR pile. I’ve got some Penguin histories of India, The Ramayana and books by Tagore on my TBR pile as well – I may have to have an Indian Month to get through them.

    Congratulations on retiring. Just think of all that extra reading time!

    • Ha! With all that extra reading time, I will be able to join an Indian reading month, won’t I?!
      (And you’re right, I think I should read the Ramayana. It’s a bit like trying to read great British Lit without knowing the Odyssey or the Bible.)

  5. This sounds like a wonderful epic novel of family and love that its centred around the life of a strong willed and yet in come ways conventional woman. 900 pages does sound like a challenge, but sounds like its worth pursuing and just read Stu’s review in which he rates it highly. Thanks for introducing us to the @DSCprize, I wasn’t aware of that either.

  6. […] Lisa’s review of The Mirror of Beauty at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog […]

  7. Wonderful review, Lisa! Wazir Khanam seems to be one of the great heroines of literature. I think I would love to read about the poetic duels and the description of life during the later part of the Mughal era. Your description of getting the book from the US behemoth made me smile :) I am planning to get it from there too, but I will get the paper version.

  8. […] some ways it reminded me of the role of poetry in The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, (see my review) where Mughal salon poets duelled for social and political supremacy using sophisticated forms to […]

  9. […] The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi […]


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