(Published in the Business Standard, July 8, 2013)
Look for the key to The Mirror of Beauty in the dedication and the epigraph, far more revealing than most of their kind. The dedication is to “29C, Hastings Road, Allahabad, its Lady of the House, and the two girls who are the radiant roses of the garden…”
The epigraph, framed in prose that is just as resolutely from another time, another era, is to: “She, who for a long time—more than half a century in fact,/ Made me happy with all her heart and body–/ I must have done some wrong, for suddenly, she/ Left our home and went to live where nothing lives.”
The Mirror of Beauty stands as thick as a doorstep and as inviting as an old pile of secondhand books. With his epigraph and dedication, Shamsher Rahman Faruqi has in effect fired a warning note across the reader’s bows. This will be storytelling of the old school, leisurely, comfortably paced, meant to be read across the span of several evenings.
And yet, the length—938 pages—is deceptive. Instead of the exhausting bulk of the 18th century three-volume English novel, what you have in Faruqi’s novel of Kishangarh, Kashmir and Delhi is a form familiar to Indian readers. This is the kind of storytelling meant to be shared, sometimes read aloud, that used to be serialized in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Malayalam periodicals. The storyteller could rest in the assumption that his readers were either not in a hurry, or were discerning enough to put aside the brisk demands of everyday life for an hour or two every evening. The modern Indian reader does effortlessly with television serials but has forgotten how to do this with books; how to enter slowly into a web of characters, make them family, immerse yourself in an alien and yet familiar world.
The central figure of The Mirror of Beauty is Wazir Khanam, mother of the poet Dagh, a woman who negotiates her independence in a time where women were supposed to have beauty instead of power, whose lovers come from both her own world and the world of the East India Company.
As you move through the pages of this novel, turn them slowly. Faruqi has spent years researching the period, and perhaps he fell a little in love with his research, for at times The Mirror of Beauty reads like a cross between an almanac and one of the eccentric encylopaedias of old: it is a container for all things. Here you will find descriptions of mushairas, disquisitions on Kishangarh paintings, suggestions for the appropriate attire in which to be hanged on the gallows before Kashmiri Gate, and always, as though his subjects attract verse the way old oil lamps attract moths, poetry, reams and rhymes of it.
In its form, The Mirror of Beauty is a companion to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, as though stepping back into the past forces the writer to become also a collector, a curator, someone who must recreate these lost or inaccurately remembered worlds.
I read The Mirror of Beauty slowly, over a period of weeks, in contrast to the way we are supposed to read today: at speed, eager to move to the next big book, and all too often, too strongly anchored in the present, in the day-to-dayness of our lives now, in this time. Its flaws are as strongly etched as its virtues: there is perhaps too much unregurgitated research, Faruqi is so deeply in love with the period he describes that he cannot bear to cut the long descriptive passages. Wazir Khanum pulled me through these passages—a timeless woman, her story made more poignant for the fact that it was both true, and for many years, unseen.
The Mirror of Beauty offers much more than the safe escapism of many historical novels. In its evocation of Old Delhi—and other places in India—Faruqi offers a gentle but also robust corrective to any idea of Indian history that would erase the complex and many-layered blend of cultures, Hindi, Persian, English and more.
Early on in The Mirror of Beauty, the author writes: “I was trying to locate lost things… Things that we boxed off in books, books that were wrapped in blue or black cloth and thrown away in the bushes and shrubs across the river, for our shoulder straps were loose, our backs bent and the burden too great for us to bear.” If you live in Delhi or India today, that is how we carry the weight of the past, discarding it because it is too heavy, too complex. Until the time when we yearn for it again, and as Faruqi writes, we go “stumbling and falling in the half-dark”, trying to retrieve what we so carelessly threw away.
If you can, read The Mirror of Beauty. Within its broad covers, it tries to contain all of our mixed pasts, including the histories so many would rather discard than examine. 900-odd pages is a small enough space, to contain all of these worlds.