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In conversation

Of continuity and change

Mehr Afshan Farooqi, who put together The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, talks about changing trends in Urdu literature. ZIYA US SALAM

Painstaking research: Mehr Afshan Farooqi.

From India to the U.S., the book has got advance praise from those who know more than a thing or two about Urdu. From Jamia Millia Islamia’s Professor Mushirul Hasan to Carlo Coppola, Professor Emeritus of Hindi, Urdu and Linguistics, Oakland University, Mehr Afshan Farooqi’s two-part The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature has not failed to strike a positive note. Covering almost 100 years of Urdu literature with 130 contributions from 90 authors, Mehr has painstakingly edited the two-volume exercise over a period of four years. Mehr grew up in North India and now works as Professor of South Asian Literature at the University of Virginia, specialising in the literary cultures of South Asia, especially in the Urdu language. Excerpts from a conversation…

For a dilettante, Urdu literature often seems a storehouse of a magical world, valiant heroes. Aren’t Urdu writers guilty of living off the past by stoking up nostalgia?

Urdu writers don’t “live of the past”. You are probably alluding to the so-called repetitive themes of ishq or the gul-o-bulbul metaphors. The truth is that the Urdu literary tradition believed itself to be self sufficient and the world view expressed by the older poets was considered satisfactory. The general principle was to recreate old themes in a new manner or add to the reservoir of accepted themes. But all this changed with the advent of Ghalib who questioned the nature of literature and the role of man in society. The 20th century saw new genres and new ideas. In fact nostalgia is invoked more by contemporary writers, especially diasporic writers who choose to write in English.

Even as the language and content has changed over the years, so has Urdu criticism. From a gentle rap to a more trenchant criticism of society, like those of Manto or Chughtai. Is social angst still an issue with our writers?

The jadid or modernist writer in Urdu resorted to abstraction, obscure symbolism or allegory. It was all about adding depth and meaning to individual experience. The modernist writer invited the reader to participate in the experience of self-exploration. Social angst is certainly no longer a primary issue with our writers.

There is hardly any paedari in modern works, often inspired by French or American literature. Your thoughts...

The term paedari means the quality of standing the test of time. So is it not rather premature to say that modern works have no paedari? The decision will be of history and the future, not ours. As regards modern Urdu writers being inspired by French or American literature, I am sorry to say that many of us do not know any French and very little English. And in any case these two literatures are too vast to influence any other literary culture in totality.

Symbolism is on the decline too. Isn’t it a reflection of a more urban, fast moving world that the writers are beginning to depict?

Reality is not a constant; values can change, lines can blur, life can be experienced in different ways. Movement and change, when accepted, become a part of our existence, consciousness and our literature. And in any case the alleged decline of symbolism has nothing to do with the alleged acceleration of the speed of urban life. And wherever there is genuine art, there will be symbolism in one form or the other.

The era of jadidyat...does it stand a realistic chance of reviving its hey days?

I am a critic and a scholar, not an astrologer so I can’t make predictions, nor should I. However, it is clear that the principles of appreciation of literature introduced by jadidiyat are still current even if they go by different names.

The role of translations has never been truly appreciated. Isn’t it the best vehicle to take the language to a generation not quite conversant with the subtleties of the language?

Translation has played an extraordinary role in the development of Urdu prose. I do think the role of translation has been appreciated. Almost all the prose works that were undertaken at Fort William, (for example, Bagh-o Bahar, the most famous of them all) were translations from Persian.

The anthology has brief notes and an example each of some of the most stirring voices of Urdu literature. How difficult was it to avoid being subjective in the choice?

I think an anthology is a personal document. It cannot escape reflecting the anthologist’s subjectivity. I did try to be as representative as possible.

How difficult was it to give a fair idea of a writer’s worth on the basis of a small sample?

It is seldom that one thinks of Urdu in the context of the jadid or the radical or modern. But the fact is that modern Urdu literature was able to retain the link with the classical and yet bring in a freshness of ideas with new metaphors that are relevant to the times we live in. Take for example the Urdu ghazal: though the ghazal was central to Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew literary traditions, it is in Urdu that it continues to thrive and shine. Take love, an eternal theme in the ghazal; the modern poet talks of love’s fading, forgetting, even moving on. I am satisfied that my work portrays the evolution of modern Urdu literature.

No stereotypes here

The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, Volumes I & II, edited by Mehr Afshan Farooqi, OUP, Rs.795 each.

Compiling an anthology encompassing some 100 years of the most fervent works of the Urdu world is as easy for an author as it is for a leopard to shed its spots. But Mehr Afshan Farooqi took on the challenge. Another matter that she had to turn a dastan (gigantic story) into an afsana (short story). So, what has been the result of the venture? Well, a laudable effort even if there are gaps in narration.

What stands out in the book is the introduction, an account of the trends and developments in Urdu literature. Beginning with the Fort William days of John Gilchrist who attempted to get Persian and Sanskrit prose translated into Urdu by local hands, the introduction flows seamlessly.

Succint narration

Of course, there are nice stop-over points, notably to talk of Qurratulain Hyder. Rather than launching into a sermon on the celebrated author’s style, the book does the job beautifully: “…inevitability of change is our only permanent reality, Hyder persistently urges us to recognise both its faces, one of gain, the other of loss”.

Similarly, Intizar Hussain’s thoughts are hailed for breaking “the linear chronology of events and the horizontal movement of time to capture and encapsulate the ephemeral world of childhood with all its fantasies and enchantments”. Mehr deserves real praise for the selection of the works. For instance, she resists the easy temptation of reproducing an extract from Godan or Ghaban while talking of Premchand. Instead, she opts for Nirmala, keeping in mind the social didactics of the time.

Surprise selection

The same story is iterated in her collection of poets in the poetry and prose miscellany section. True, there is the predictable presence of the likes of Iqbal, Hasrat Mohani, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Majaz, and later Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ali Sardar Jafri, but the inclusion of Nun Mim Rashid is interesting. Often denied his due by posterity, Nazar Muhammad Rashid, who preferred to be called by his Urdu initials, Nun Mim, makes his presence felt with Hasan Kuzahgar or “Hasan the Potter”. Of course, she is aided by some fine translation by M.A.R. Habib and Richard Cohen, but to give Mehr her due, she is close to impeccable in her selection here. The same yardstick is used for Faiz, whose timeless Subh-e-Azadi (Dawn of Freedom), talking of the Partition and independence pangs is reproduced. Of course, many remember Faiz with “Mujhse pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang”. Not so Mehr.

Therein lies her credit. Even when compiling a detailed anthology, she resists easy stereotypes. Never given to playing to popularity charts, the work is a scholarly exercise. Lots of patience and research has gone into it. The introductions for each writer, brief without being incomplete, are quite interesting. The translations, in most cases, are up to the mark too. It is a body of Urdu work in English not easy to find given the progress of the wheel of time. Now all it needs is a dispassionate, discerning reader to gauge its true worth.


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