A general opinion about Urdu novel is that there’s nothing much except Aag ka Darya and Udaas Naslein. One great author, who has many fine novels to his credit went a step further and said:

“It’s very disappointing that we haven’t come out of the impact of these two great novels and keep glorifying them instead of moving on and creating a diverse literature. Great novels are being written even in languages and cultures where you don’t expect to find such literary prowess”.

Another major issue in the literary world of Urdu is the perpetual conflict between writers and critics. Although there are a few great names in Urdu criticism and their contributions are legendary but it is generally believed that there has been a lot of unfair literary criticism. Writers don’t regard critics as a serious lot. Great novelist Abdullah Hussain went as far as explicitly requesting the critics to leave his novel Nadaar Log alone for at least six months after its publication so that his readers could read it undisturbed.

In my opinion, the answer to both these problems is the novel Kaee Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman, which I consider the third greatest Urdu novel. Also, it’s not written by a novelist but a great literary critic Shamsur Rehman Farooqi hence creating a bridge between fiction and criticism and putting an end to the notion that critics can never be creative. Kaee Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman (Many moons adorned the heavens) was published nearly a decade ago by Penguin in Delhi and Scheherzade Publications in Karachi.

The novel starts from a search of its characters which were not fictional and lived real lives a century and many decades ago. Their lives and times were buried in the ancient documents archived at India Office Library, London. A far descendent spends his days deciphering old papers in search of his roots. A fascinating story emerges after connecting the dots and it seems that facts were always stranger than fiction.

The story features strong male characters; however one woman who is the common link between all of them emerges as the protagonist. Her name is Wazir Khanum. The earlier part of the novel is the gripping account of Wazir Khanum’s ancestors and one forefather in particular whose passion for a Raja’s daughter drives him away from the sands of his native Rajputana to an altogether different world, the high mountains and valleys of Kashmir. Farooqi’s narrative is so strong that in a few pages reader feels the heat of desert and the beauty of mountains. These few pages do complete justice to the culture and life of these great regions. By the time Wazir Khanum emerges on the scene, the family has settled in Delhi, once the great capital of mighty Mughals now effectively under the control of British East India Company. Youngest of the three daughters, Wazir falls in love with a British officer Marston Blake. So unlike the other young ladies of the respectable families of the time, she has the courage to make her own decisions. She leaves her family while still in her teens and marries the Englishman. Thus starts the remarkable journey which takes this woman of beauty and talent through different loves and lives. After Marston Blake’s death in a riot in Jaipur, Wazir was separated from her baptized children and had to come back to Delhi. Just when she thought her life had ended, destiny opened another door. Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, a highly sophisticated noble and the Lord of Ferozepur and Loharu, fell in love with her and the couple got married after spending some delightful times in courtship. On the other hand Delhi’s British Resident William Fraser wanted Wazir for his own harem. A rivalry started between the Nawab and the Resident ends in William Fraser’s murder and Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan’s hanging on charge of the murder. The Nawab is hailed as a martyr by the people of Delhi. Wazir mourns her lover husband and retires to a quiet and secluded life. In their short time together, Wazir bore the Nawab a son. The boy was named Nawab Mirza who went on to become Dagh Dehelvi, one of the greatest poets in Urdu’s history. This part of the novel also features Mirza Ghalib for he was a close friend of William Fraser and Dagh’s mentor in poetry.

After Nawab’s death, Wazir Khanum and her son were left with no patronage or income. They were used to comforts of life which were rapidly drifting away. After a long time in mourning, Wazir Khanum’s sister brought a marriage proposal for her. This time it was middle aged noble Agha Turab Ali. It was more a marriage of convenience. Wazir developed a warm relationship with her third husband, but as if death always accompanied her to the new husband’s house. Not a long time after their marriage, Agha Turab Ali was killed by the Thugs while travelling. This part of the novel presents interesting details about nineteenth century thugs, their ways and their culture. Wazir’s last admirer was none other than a Mughal Prince. The House of Timur was in its final years in the Red Fort of Delhi. The government was practically in the hands of the British. Bahadur Shah Zafar was just a ceremonial King, master of his premises and nothing else. The third Crown Prince Mirza Muhammad Sultan Ghulam Fakhruddin Fateh-ul-Mulk Bahadur or simply Mirza Fakhru fell in love with Wazir who was by now in her early middle age and mother of a grown up son. The King allows his son to marry the woman with a past. Wazir is taken to the Red Fort with pomp and show and the last golden chapter of her life unfolds. Not a long time afterwards, Mirza Fakhru is poisoned and the final scene of the novel shows Wazir Khanum voluntarily leaving the Royal premises before being driven out of the Fort by the Queen herself. More than a century later, the researcher descendent of Wazir Khanum finds her portrait in Mirza Fakhru’s journal found in India Office Library. Apparently the story revolves around Wazir Khanum’s marriages, but in fact it’s much more than that. From the house of a British officer to the Mughal harem, it’s a fascinating tale of love and intrigue and a beautiful description of its times and society. 

The literary strength, gripping narrative, powerful characters and rich cultural references in Kaee Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman are reflective of author’s huge efforts in creating such a masterpiece. It is a heavily researched novel which does not only encompass the events but also the cultural and social layers working behind the obvious circumstances. Author’s mastery over language and different dialects spoken in different regions is mesmerizing. It is relatively easier to create a character purely out of imagination than giving new life to a real character and at the same time treading on the thin line between fact and fiction. The characters and narrative are so real and authentic that the reader finds himself in the world of the story. Responsibility for authenticity is further increased when many historical characters like Bahadur Shah Zafar, the royal princes and courtiers, William Fraser, Mirza Ghalib, Nawab Shamsuddin Ahmad Khan, and Nawab Mirza Dagh Dehelvi play significant roles in the development of the story. Real or fictitious, the author has done absolute justice with his characters. Shamsur Rehman Farooqi has introduced a new form in Urdu novel which has raised the standards much higher. Urdu is yet to realize the true worth of this hidden gem. Kaee Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman was translated and published in English under the title The Mirror of Beauty.

Personally, I was absolutely mesmerized after reading Kaee Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman and for many days I couldn’t come out of its trance. Very fortunately, a couple of months later Shamsur Rehman Farooqi arrived in Pakistan to attend Faiz International Festival which was held in Lahore in November 2015. Because of a volatile border and difficult visa policies on both sides, a guest from India is always a special guest, besides Mr Farooqi is an elderly man. The session was about Faiz’s popularity with the common people and Mr Farooqi was reading from one of his essays. The crux of his thesis was that Faiz’s poetry has many technical mistakes but nevertheless it’s extremely popular so the faults can be overlooked. Although, an excellent storyteller I was surprised to realize that he was highly unimpressive as a speaker. He used highly technical literary terms which a layman couldn’t possibly understand and spoke very quickly, jumbling up words. When the session ended, I went up to the stage to get my copy of Kaee Chand Thay Sar-e-Aasman signed. At that very moment, great poetess Fehmida Riaz who was sitting in the first row through the session, stood up and started protesting in her characteristic robust style. 

“A lot of wrong things have been said here about Faiz,” she said

“Fehmida! Now is not the right moment…..” Faiz’s daughter Muneeza Hashmi tried to calm her down.

“No! I protest.”

Mr Farooqi was listening to all this and kept smiling while he signed the book. It is one of my prized possessions.