His command of Urdu and good knowledge of Muslim customs are attributed by Firaq to his fathers house being in a Muslim neighbourhood, which gave him the opportunity, as a child, to visit the homes of the Muslim Ashrafia and listen to the spoken language of their women.
His Fasana-i-Azad, a dastan, in spite of its name, is regarded as the best work of its genre and is still reprinted. Subsequently, he wrote a number of stories, as well as translating Don Quixote into Urdu. Two books, which can be unhesitatingly described as novels are Jam-e-Sarshar and Sair-e-Kohsar, published in 1887 and 1890 respectively, i.e. nine years before Umrao Jan Ada, which is wrongly regarded as Urdus first novel.
Jam-e-Sarshar was meant to be a didactic work, warning people against excessive drinking of alcohol. It is the story of a self-centred, but no too intelligent nawab of Lucknow, whom his courtiers lead into alcoholism and debauchery, until he murders his second wife, who was of servant-class origin and had deserted him, and gets hanged.
It is a novel in the modern sense, with a unity of theme and appropriate narration. But the canvas is constricted, so much so that most of the action appears to be essentially a part of the zenana of the nawabs house. It seems that the second act of a classical Greek drama has been rendered into prose, where the characters are driven by the gods inexorably to their destruction.
Sair-e-Kohsar, on the other hand, is a mature work with a clear theme, rich narrative and vivid characterisation of the players. Its central character is Nawab Askari, but the richest, the strongest, is a beautiful bangle-seller, Qamran.
Nawab Askari is the better kind of the nawabs of Lucknow in the late nineteenth century. He is intelligent, moderate and essentially kind-hearted. His weakness is that he falls for every pretty face, more so if the female is intelligent too. The fact that his own wife is young and extremely good looking does not seem to deter him in his amorous pursuits, though she is not, by any means, neglected.
Qamran is immoral only in the sense that she deceives her husband without the least scruple. Actually, she feels that, with her beauty and intelligence, she deserves a better life economically than that provided by the sale of bangles, and a higher social status than her imbecile of a husband could give her. Therefore, even in her first encounter with Nawab Askari, with whom she engages in badinage, she indicates her availability. A few days later, she moves into a house provided by him to live as his wife. Nawabs first wife succeeds in separating them for a while, but they meet again and he takes her to Naini Tal for the summer. Upon their return to Lucknow, she runs away with an ice-cream seller, who, regarding her as wanton, mistreats her. She falls ill and returns to the nawabs house when in an advanced stage of tuberculosis. The latter accepts her with grace and she dies.
Askari himself is not the type of the aristocrats, who give themselves into the hands of wily courtiers to be led to ruin. He meets a number of Western-educated compatriots in Naini Tal and seriously develops an interest in modern knowledge and thought, recognising their superiority to the old ways. And he wants to change himself too. Writing to a friend, he says: It is much to be regretted that our people of Lucknow passed their lives so heedlessly in the days of the ruling nawabs. They still think it a fault in a man that he earns his bread by his own labour (Lucknow and the World of Sarshar by Firoze Mookerjee, 1992, p 207).
Sarshar himself had had a modern education and wanted his countrymen to change. But that apparently did not, in his view, prevent a rich man from philandering, if he, at the same time, gave respect and a comfortable life to his wife. Conjugal love did not, in his view, include conjugal fidelity. According to Firoze Mookerjee: Sarshars woman unites two elements much less frequently found together in his society - on the one hand, the attractiveness and the boldness in love of the courtesan and, on the other, the chastity and the unbreakable loyalty of the begam(Ibid p 201).
His language, being that of Lucknow, naturally shows greater influence of Persian than would the vocabularies of Delhi, Patna, Lahore or Hyderabad. A passage: Iss qadr arz karna bhool gaye thhay kay Munshi Maharaj Bali Sahab bhhi dandi hi par sawar huay thhay. Nawab sahib nay apna eik samand ghhora un ko diya. Pahlay tau bari der tak unhon nay qataii inkar kiya quai hum na sawar hon gay - Aakhirkaar ji kara kar kay sawar huay chalay - aik rikab par kaanptay huay paon rakhha tau doosri taang ghhoray kay patthon par. Ghhora samjha kay koii bala aa gaii. Faoran bhhaga. Ab munshi baali sahib tangay huay chalay jaatay hain. Log daur paray, ghhoray ko rok liya. Yeh garbara kar utray tau bahot hi khafa huay (Vol 2, p 38).
n The writer is a retired ambassador.