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Muhammad Umar Memon: The Short Form Interview

When a Western author writes, he doesn’t lose sleep over whether his work would be intelligible outside the boundaries of Europe.

Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies, avid translator, editor of numerous Urdu short story volumes, including Do You Suppose it’s the East Wind? Stories from Pakistan.

The Interview

You have written of literature as a window into how "ordinary lives are wasted by politics and history." Is that the function of literature, is it what makes it worthwhile, say, over other callings or causes?

The quote you refer to was made in a particular context, but neither then nor now do I believe that this is the only function of literature. The use of the term “function” is problematic, but if literature has a function, it is to give us wisdom, as Milan Kundera has aptly put it. It doesn’t chronicle the history of a society. Its principle concern is with the individual, which again is a fictional character drawn from bits and pieces of empirical reality and blended with rich doses of imagination. Many Indian Progressive Writers of the 1930s, until their hegemony came to end in the 1950s, grievously erred by subordinating literature to their agenda of social reform, thereby violating the former’s radical autonomy.

I also do not think that you choose fiction over other professions or causes. To think of literature as a profession is a peculiar invention of the West. If you look at the pre-colonial history of the Muslim peoples, you would see that just about every writer or artist or intellectual was supported by the central or provincial royal courts. If not that, he had a different profession to maintain his livelihood while he carried on with his literary pursuits. So you don’t choose it; it chooses you for a lifetime of servitude you cannot well walk away from, though you could also say that it is the product of an initial subjective inclination or compulsion. You don’t suddenly decide one day to become a writer. If you’re infected with the germ already in the womb, then you are a writer whether you’re aware of it or not, and whether or not you ever write anything. Mario Vargas Llosa has eloquently described this delightful predicament in his fascinating little book Letters to a Young Novelist.

[Urdu writers] are doctors, engineers, radio or television artists, journalists, newspaper columnists, professors, etc. I know of only two people in Pakistan who never worked.

What if a person who has that calling feels discouraged, for whatever pragmatic or ethical reasons? Perhaps he thinks full-time activism is more worthwhile, for example. What would you say to someone in that situation?

There are no shortcuts in life. And circumstances do intrude and thwart our most ardent ambitions. If a true writer feels that he can’t write, whatever the impediments, there is little one can do about it. Fiction writing may be time consuming, but no one is asking you to write. Llosa’s whole argument is that it is a calling, an inner voice that won’t let you be and feeds off you, and those infected with the bug will find a way. I can only speak about Urdu writers of Pakistan, and practically none of them live by writing, which is not to say that some don’t make any or good money at all. They invariably have a profession. They are doctors, engineers, radio or television artists, journalists, newspaper columnists, professors, etc. I know of only two people in Pakistan who never worked. But they have brought their needs down to a bare minimum and never complain about lack of money. They live in this world with their eyes trained on distant horizons. In India, Naiyer Masud, a world-class fiction writer, earned his living by teaching at Lucknow University. On the other hand, many aspiring writers actually pay to have their books published. And if publishers are to be trusted, the print run rarely exceeds 400 to 500 copies. Even if they paid a ten percent advance on 500 copies, it wouldn’t provide for even a month’s wherewithal.

The novel’s world, Kundera says, is a world of infinite freedom—freedom to experiment and play, and have a good laugh; hence its radical self-sufficiency and autonomy. It may sound cruel, but, in a manner of speaking, a writer or an artist is a very self-centered creature. I recommend Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence

We need a court divorce between this unholy marriage of writer and publisher.

Are we to put the burden of sacrifice on our artists? Though income allows a writer more resources for writing, very often there isn’t a mass market for the kind of writing that needs to be published.

For me the money-art problem is irrelevant, largely because it doesn’t change the nature of the writer’s wholesome malady. I need fifteen pages to tell you all about my gripes with the publishing industry. André Schiffrin, who was for 30 years director of publishing at Pantheon Books, eventually got so fed up with having to turn down worthy manuscripts because of their limited salability that he established The New Press, the not-for-profit enterprise. But just look at how many books from the Third World it has published. It has improved the situation some, but it has its own limitations. Blurbs, prepublication reviews, book launches and book tours—just so much showbiz. We need a court divorce between this unholy marriage of writer and publisher. A book worth reading will always find a way to the reader. Remember samizdat? As teenagers we read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in what was then called a cyclostyled (today’s mimeographed) copy.

What about grants? A Dutch friend complains that Netherlands’ grant culture creates entitled artists who consider themselves a step above the same tax-payers whose money sponsors their lifestyle.

This business of grants and funding also raises my hackles. I found it exceedingly distasteful to have to ask my peers or super-peers for recommendations and be shackled by the grant’s time constraints. So after a couple of humiliations, early in my career as a teacher, I decided not to apply for grants. Maybe my CV looks poorer for it, but I’m confident that my unfunded contribution is in no way less than that of any of my colleagues. I have done what I could do, at my turtle’s pace, on my own time, and have enjoyed every minute of it.

You have written about how fiction as we know it arrived, as a by-product of colonial rule, late to Urdu, which has its literary tradition rooted in poetry; and how the novel came before the short story, in the work of Munshi Premchand (1880-1936). Can you tell us more about that?

Let us not forget that “fiction” as understood today also did not exist in the West a few centuries ago, and is still evolving. So in that sense it is a borrowed form in Urdu, as much as it is a borrowed form in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. It might surprise you that there is a remarkable affinity between Western and Middle Eastern prose literatures until the end of the Middle Ages. The West strikes out on a different path after this point. For me, the important questions are two: one, we must look at our classical prose forms (S.R. Faruqi has done a remarkable multi-volume study of the Urdu dastans that is nothing less than an astounding contribution to world literature) and, two, we must look at contemporary Urdu or Hindi or Bengali fiction for what it is. I’m sure this would be rewarding in unsuspecting ways.

Among books published in any Western country in a given year, percentage-wise, the largest number of foreign translations are into the smaller languages of Europe rather than into English.

Given the obvious benefits of translation, how much do you think we really lose in the process, especially in a language like Urdu, which sounds very lyrical in its natural state — you have said of Asad Muhammad Khan’s work that "it is so culture and language specific that it fails to glow in English".

First, while it is true that Urdu tends to be a lyrical language and old habits die hard (not that there is anything inherently wrong in being lyrical), there are many Urdu writers whose language use is not at all lyrical. Take for instance, Naiyer Masud, a world-class writer according to Amit Chaudhry. Masud writes a language so simple and shorn of any kind of lyricism and rhetoric and so bereft of qualifiers and adjectives that it is hard to find a similar example in English fiction. Yet on such a disarmingly simple foundation he builds a narrative that literally mesmerizes you. When a Western author writes, he doesn’t lose sleep over whether his work would be intelligible outside the boundaries of Europe, which is his or her world. And if it is intelligible to most Europeans, whether Romanian or Czech or Spanish, it is because its allusions are part of a common cultural inheritance. Likewise, in the pre-colonial period there was a cultural zone in which most things and ways of feeling and articulating them and of looking at the world and oneself were common among Arabs, Persians, Turks, Central Asians, and Indians. An Ibn Battuta could travel from his native Tangier all the way to Maldeep and never risk being misunderstood, though his mother tongue was Arabic.

I translate from English all the time. There are occasions when a culturally specific concept or allusion becomes impossible to render with quite the same resonance that it creates for a European reader. I have less difficulty translating from Arabic. There, my problems are mainly lexical, few if any cultural. Literature other than your own is not a hamburger that you can buy by throwing a few dollars at McDonald’s. For whether you gobble it (which is the only way to eat it) in Patna or in Los Angeles, it fulfills its function, which is to fill your tummy. But if you really are hungry for foreign literatures, learn the language and soak yourself in its literary culture. After all, the French don’t make it easy for you just because you are a native of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia or of Tando Allahyar in Sind or Bhamola village in Aligarh. We have to tax over muscles to dig our own well. I might also add that among books published in any Western country in a given year, percentage-wise, the largest number of foreign translations are into the smaller languages of Europe rather than into English. Within two years of Naiyer Masud’s Essence of Camphor, it was published in Finnish.

What is lost in translation? Well, something does get lost. When you translate it is impossible to eliminate your culture and personal history, to eliminate what makes you who you are. The comforting thought is that each generation or historical period translates essentially for itself. If you are not riding roughshod over a novel or a short story and have retained its thrust, minor linguistic deviations should not be considered an impediment. Rather, you should be satisfied that you have carried over the spirit of the original.

The often insurmountable difficulties of cross-cultural translation aside, the exercise is enormously rewarding. It introduces your language to new ways of expressing feelings. Most of all, it informs you of what is lacking in your language and how best to overcome it.

You taught Urdu Literature and Islamic Studies at University of Wisconsin, where you are a Professor Emiritus . I'm curious about what your student body has looked like over the years.

Although the University of Wisconsin is among the major universities in this country, it has no Department of Middle or Near Eastern Studies. Islamic Studies didn’t even exist until I started teaching here in 1970. I voluntarily introduced an undergraduate course, Islam: Religion and Culture. For decades it was the only course on campus focused on Islam. The enrollment was never very large but after the events of 9/11 it picked up exponentially, reaching over 200 in some years. In the decade previous to my retirement, I introduced a few new courses on literatures of Muslim societies and on Sufism. Given the situation, we really didn’t have more than the occasional one or two wanting to study for a Ph.D. on Islamic topics. The situation is perhaps getting better now, but this University will always suffer from the absence of a Department fully devoted to the Middle East and Islamic Studies.

Urdu was always taught with Hindi at the first year level, and the instructor didn’t know much Urdu, and its script not at all. The emphasis lay on Hindi and it was assumed that if you learned Hindi you somehow learned Urdu automatically. This didn’t encourage students to take Urdu from second year on. Still, I always had students, though few ever wanted to work in Urdu literature at the doctoral level. Or if they wanted to, they moved on to other universities with a more hospitable environment for the language. After 35 years of unceasing efforts I was finally able to have the instruction of the two languages separated, but now the emphasis shifted from literature to proficiency in the spoken language, thanks to government funding and purpose. My former position has been scrapped.

Tell us a little bit more about the Urdi-Hindi relationship.

Urdu-Hindi interaction among writers was quite strong up until Partition, largely because a goodly number of Hindu and Sikh writers also, or exclusively, wrote in Urdu, although the reverse was not true. Hardly any Urdu-speaking Muslim, then, wrote in Hindi. Some of Urdu’s top-notch writers have also been Hindus and Sikhs. Of the three big names in Urdu fiction, one was a Hindu and the other a Sikh. The situation is pathetic today. In 1996 I happened to be at the Delhi YMCA. Quite by accident I found out that some Panjabis were holding a literary meeting in another hall. I went there. These were Panjabis who had migrated to India in the aftermath of 1947. They were keeping their flickering Urdu alive by still writing in Urdu, holding literary gatherings and even publishing a literary magazine in Urdu. But their children didn’t know their parents’ Urdu. Sukrita Paul Kumar, daughter of the well-known Urdu writer Joginder Paul, once admitted as much. I dread the day when the remnants of that generation will be gone. Of course the future may surprise us. Let’s hope so.

One wholesome phenomenon that is evident in Hindi fiction is that after Partition some Muslims have started writing fiction in Hindi, among them Rahi Masum Raza, Abdul Bismillah, and Asghar Wajahat.

And what about the Urdi-Hindi relatinship in Bollywood?

To tell you the truth, I have never thought about Urdu and Bollywood. Indians may want to marginalize Urdu and hope that it will eventually disappear (whether this will happen depends on how active or lax the Urdu community in India is), but Bollywood cannot entirely do away with it, though it won’t call it Urdu. The credits of most Indian films give Hindi as the language and never mention that the film’s lyrics are generally in Urdu. I don’t think it is due to any deliberate strategy to stifle Urdu. But if something is financially lucrative, why not go for it? They rake in profits both ways. In Amsterdam I had the best falafel at an Israeli Jewish eatery. The day is not far off when pita will transmogrify into a Jewish bread. This is all commercial hype.

You edit The Anuual of Urdu Studies, which has lost funding. What is the status of the journal?

I tried my best to raise funds after the assistance of the American Institute of Pakistan Studies was reduced to a level insufficient to keep the publication alive. The overseas Urdu community’s response has been very disappointing. It is entirely likely that the Annual may not continue past this year.

Recommended by Muhammad Umar Memon

Beyond the Fog

Throughout the day English sahibs, memsahibs, and their baba log cross the bridge on mules and horses or riding in rickshaws and dandis. In the evening, the same bridge becomes the site of milling crowds of Indians. The swarm of rushing humanity going up and down the slopes huffing and puffing looks like the surge of a massive tidal wave. Movies starring Esther Williams, Joan Fontaine, Nur Jahan, and Khursheed are playing in the local cinemas. Skating continues in the rinks. In the ballroom of the Savoy the Anglo-Indian crooner and his band will soon start “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” Drums will be struck; maharaja and maharani log, nabob log, bara sahib and bara mem log will start dancing.

At this hour, while the whole of Mussourie is absorbed in merrymaking, a poor man stands quietly on this bridge near the bazaar—“Kabira stands in the bazaar praying for everyone’s well-being.”

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Then they would stop some other passerby and subject him to the same questions. During this exercise a couple of people even got beaten up. At first the thought that the third question might well result in my getting roughed up too scared me quite a bit, so I became nerous trying to answer it, but as I drew closer to my home I started to feel a bit testy about the question itself. When I was asked, “What do you do?” for the last time, I answered my heart, “I live off the earnings of my mother.”

We read it in Snake Catcher.

Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.

Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire

My long association with women and houses had given me the keen instincts of an animal. And now as I stood in the darkness, I peered about keenly just as an animal does. I took a deep breath. I was certain that the characteristic perfume emitted by ancient houses, which I’d begun to smell outside the door, would soon assail my nostrils. But this did not happen. And even though I knew it to be futile, I squinted into the darkness with such intesnity that my feautres must have surely looked frightening. In spite of this, I could not cut through the darkness.

We read it in Snake Catcher.

Co-translated by Muhammad Umar Memon with Javaid Qazi.

The Back Room

The threshold of the back room appeared to her to be a boundary to a dark land. As she stepped across the dust-coated sill, her hert began pounding. She moved slowly and deliberately into the dark room, always apprehensive and on the verge of turning back. Her perception of this room had changed many times. Out there, on the other side of the sill, was another world: dark but comforting and familiar. Often after playing in  he scorching sun in the lane or courtyard, she entered the back room to hide behind its doors or slip behind the dirty tarnished cauldron in one of the corners. The cooling darkness quenched her flushed, warm body. Her feet luxuriated in the cill of the soft soil. Mother was alive then.