Publish and Perish

I have long been familiar with the adage that governs so much in American academia—Publish or perish—but now I have learned a new truth: publish and perish.

It began some weeks back when I got a pleasant surprise from Professor Narayani Gupta of Delhi. She informed me that an enterprising young scholar named Rana Safavi had translated into English both editions—essentially two separate books—of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Asar-al-Sanadid, and the translation was soon to be published by the Tulika Books, Delhi. Would I be willing, she then asked, to have my long essay on the book reprinted in it as an Afterword sort of thing?

My essay, “Syed Ahmad and His Two Books Called ‘Asar-al-Sanadid’,” appeared in the May 2011 issue of Modern Asian Studies (45:3, 669–708). That was ten years after I had retired. So its publication was not for the purpose of saving me from perishing. The books had become available in facsimile editions in 2005, and it had taken me close to five years to finally finish a project that I had long aspired to do. In fact, the seed for it was planted a few decades back by Professor Gupta when I had met her at the Jami’a Millia. My essay was a labor of love, and much work and reading had gone into it as can been seen in its 100 footnotes.

Naturally, therefore, when I got Professor Gupta’s note, I was doubly gratified, and only too glad to give my full consent. What could be a better new life for my article, I thought, than for it to be included in the first full/joint translation of the two books it discussed?

Alas, I had forgotten the PUBLISHER. Modern Asian Studies is published by the Cambridge University Press; in fact it is just one of a whole gaggle of journals that they publish. Tulika Books contacted them, informing them of my full consent. I too wrote them. What was the end result? Here is the relevant portion from the note I received from the editor at Tulika:

“I’m afraid what I had feared has come to be. I just received an email from CUP granting us permission to include your article in our translation of Asar — but at a fee of GBP 480, which works out to over Rs 40,000 given the skewed currency exchange rate! I am sorry if this is disappointing to you, as indeed it is to us, but I hope you will understand that we just cannot afford to pay out such a high amount for reproducing your article. It would upset the entire ‘economics’ of the publication’s production cost. I haven’t yet replied to CUP but will be sending them a ‘no, thank you’ email by tomorrow. I thought I should inform you first. I thank you very much for your generosity and for taking time out to pursue this on our behalf.”

Four hundred and eighty pounds, i.e. six hundred and twenty-one dollars! For the right to reprint a forty page article on an obscure subject in a book that is not likely to sell more than six hundred copies! I’m fairly confident that the CUP makes enough from the sale of the MAS, in print and on line, not so much from individual subscribers as from the special rates that institutions pay. (In 2011, any American institution desirous of subscribing to the MAS had to pay $574.00.) University presses also get grants and subsidies, particularly when they publish something rare and special. So it is not as if they cannot afford to be less ruthless. Mind you, I, the author, did not get a penny in 2011, and would not have received a penny now either from Tulika or the CUP. And so, from the perspective of my essay, it lost a lovely and unusual opportunity to reach a new and wider audience in India. It was published in 2011; it perished in 2016. RIP.

A Treasure in Gujranwala

The first Urdu printing press in Lahore, Matba’-i Koh-i Nur, was established in 1849, the year the city was fully brought under the authority of the East India Company. Printing presses were an essential need of the new political system — it needed rulebooks to train and guide its indigenous staff in the mechanics of the new administration as well as printed registers and forms for use in the new sarrishtas or government departments. Consequently, one finds a progress of printing presses across North India in the wake of the progress of the Colonial rule. The introduction of litho printing a couple of decades earlier also helped a great deal, for the imported technology was perfect for Persian and Urdu, the two languages that the new rulers preferred in their North Indian possessions outside of Bengal.


The pioneering press was set up by Munshi Harsukh Rai, who had earlier worked in a press at Meerut. Not surprisingly, his first publications were revenue manuals. But the following year Munshi sahib also started publishing a weekly named Koh-i Nur. In doing so he had again followed the pattern set by earlier presses. According to Muhammad Atiq Siddiqui (Hindustani Akhbarnavisi, Kampani ke Ahd Men, 1957), by 1857 there had come up 167 Urdu presses in the Urdu region of North India, and of them 103 had also published a newspaper of their own. Most, however, did not last very long. Koh-i Nur was a major exception; it lasted 54 years. And in many of those years it appeared twice, even thrice, per week. And yet, such has been the fate of Urdu newspapers that one would be hard put now to find even 54 individual issues of that paper.


It is little recognised that in the matter of publishing reading matter for the benefit of Urdu-speaking women Lahore has precedence over both Delhi and Lucknow. It was here in 1887 that Munshi Mahbub Alam began publishing his famous ‘penny journal,’ Paisa Akhbar, and then in 1893 launched a monthly journal, Sharif Bibi, that reached a readership beyond Lahore. Five years later, Munshi Mumtaz Ali launched his history-making weekly, Tehzeeb-i Nisvan, that was edited by his wife, Muhammadi Begum — probably the first or second Indian woman to hold such a responsibility. The latter journal lasted much longer than the former, and also gained a much wider circulation across the subcontinent. More significantly, it could boast a remarkable roster of women writers as contributors, and even editors. A few years later, both Munshi Mahbub Alam and Munshi Mumtaz Ali launched special journals aimed at children readers — another first for Lahore. And yet again, not only in Lahore but in no place on earth can one find complete files of the early years of these invaluable journals. Sadly, public libraries, government archives, and educational institutions in South Asia have mostly neglected to preserve Urdu periodicals and newspapers, not only in Urdu but also in most Indian languages.


It is in this context that the quiet diligence of one Pakistani deserves grateful recognition: Ziaullah Khokhar of Gujranwala. During a recent trip to Pakistan I had the good fortune to meet him and get a glimpse of his invaluable collection of Urdu books and journals.



Khokhar sahib, who must be in his late seventies now, seems to have lived most of his life in Gujranwala, where his father, Abdul Majeed Khokhar, had a manufacturing business. The father was fond of reading, and besides books also used to subscribe to several newspapers and magazines. Unlike most people, however, he never discarded any of them. Every book was saved, as was every single issue of the journals that were bought. Here is how Khokhar sahib has described his father:


I was at the seventh or eighth stage in the progress of my life, when my revered father made me fond of reading children’s magazines. From my earliest schooldays it was my habit to go from school straight to Bazar Almariyan, to my father’s factory, and give him a helping hand till dusk. Our society was then firm in traditional ways and values, and times were very peaceful and harmonious, shops would close very early. On many days, my father would place me on his bicycle and take me to the Basheer Sahrai Akhbar Ghar in the nearby Rail Bazar, where he would get me a few such magazines


That habit of reading and preserving became ingrained in the young Ziaullah, who studied science and engineering, but apparently never fully joined the family business. Instead he devoted himself more strenuously to expanding the collection initiated by his father. Towards that end he even travelled to other cities on a regular basis. That has particularly enhanced the value of his collection, since we know how not all books published in Karachi — not to mention Sialkot or Peshawar — always reach bookshops in Lahore.


The result of that true labour of love is now called the Abdul Majeed Khokhar Memorial Library, lovingly set up in Khokhar sahib’s house in a modest neighbourhood of Gujranwala. Only a small plaque on the gate announces it to the world. Presently it contains some 200,000 individual issues of newspapers and periodicals — literary, religious, popular, political — and some 35,000 books, including 700 autobiographies, 1300 travelogues, 200 collections of letters, and 400 volumes of biographical sketches. There are 800 titles devoted to Ghalib, and 1800 to Iqbal. There are also more than a thousand books of various kinds in Punjabi.


Khokhar Sahib’s diligence is evident not only in the size of his collection but also in the manner he has single-handedly preserved them. Most of the space in his substantial house is now full of shelves, on which sit books and bundles of periodicals carefully wrapped in cellophane to protect them from dust and the insecticide he uses. And yet so much more needs to be done. The day I went to the library I could see books and newspapers and periodicals lying in small stacks on the floor of a couple of rooms, not neglected but waiting to be lovingly wrapped and preserved by Khokhar sahib and his young assistant.


Khokhar sahib is not ungenerous towards sincere readers and scholars. He responds to people’s requests, providing information, even photocopies if at all possible. Uniquely, however, he has been doing what only a few major institutions have done in the past. He has been preparing and publishing topical catalogues of what he has saved, thus enabling historians of Urdu language and literature to gain a fuller sense of Urdu’s printed heritage.


Not surprisingly one of the four catalogues so far published is devoted to the kind of periodicals he discovered as a child. Issued in 2004, it is titled Bachchon ki Sahafat ke Sau Saal (One Hundred Years of Children’s Journals). It lists over two hundred titles, giving as much bibliographical details as possible, such as the place and date of the journal’s first publication, and the names of the editors. Additionally it gives details of the journal’s special issues in the library. Like many I had always assumed that Munshi Mumtaz Ali’s Phool was Urdu’s first journal for children. Now I know that while Phool came out in 1909 under the editorship of Nazr-e Sajjad Hyder, it was preceded by Munshi Mahbub Alam’s Bachchon ka Akhbar, which started in 1902. The former, a weekly, lasted a few decades, whereas the latter, a monthly, survived for only ten years. Fortunately for us, the Khokhar library contains 12 issues of that pioneering journal, as well as 400 issues of Phool.


An equally unique catalogue is devoted to travelogues. Titled Faharisul Asfar (Catalogue of Travels), it lists the 1300 travelogues the library has, first by their titles and next by their authors. Of them, 18 were published before 1900, 124 between 1901 and 1947, and the rest are more recent, making evident that there has been an explosion of travel writing in Urdu, almost exclusively in Pakistan, since 1947. I was surprised to discover that the largest number were authored by the late Hakim Muhammad Saeed (55), followed by Qamar Ali Abbasi (20) and Mustansar Husain Tarar (17). Also noteworthy is that the Khokhar collection contains at least 115 travelogues written by women.


Another catalogue is titled Ta’limgahon ke Rasa’il va Jara’id (Journals and Periodicals Published by Educational Institutions). This was printed in 2007, and was freely distributed in honour of his late father. It lists more than 450 titles of a wide range of regular or occasional journals published by colleges, universities, and learned societies across the subcontinent. The oldest dates back to 1894. Though most come from Pakistani institutions, quite a few Indian institutions also find representation. In addition to giving the usual information about the periodical and the number of the copies preserved at the library, Khokhar sahib has also taken the trouble to indicate what special issues were published, and under whose editorship.


The fourth catalogue is another invaluable resource for research in Urdu studies. And again a first on its subject: the special issues that various Urdu monthlies brought out devoted to a single topic or author. Titled Mahana Rasa’il ke Khususi Shumare (Special Issues of Monthly Journals), it runs to over 400 pages, and makes apparent Khokhar Sahib’s unusual curiosity about Urdu periodicals, and his rare awareness of the wealth of knowledge that lies buried in them.


By remarkable coincidence, a similarly invaluable collection of Urdu periodicals was put together in India by an individual of modest means — a car mechanic by profession — totally removed from educational institutions: Abdus Samad Khan sahib’s collection in India was lovingly described by Raza Ali Abdi on BBC, but was already well known to scholars in India and abroad. It was eventually purchased by a consortium of American universities and then established as Urdu Research Centre at the Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, Hyderabad, where it is now secure and will eventually be made available to worldwide readership via digitisation.


The achievements of Ziaullah Khokhar, this unassuming and wise man of Gujranwala, also deserve genuine recognition and solid support. He has done the hard work of collection, preservation, and cataloguing; now it is for the people of Pakistan — indeed for all lovers of Urdu language — to undertake the easier task of making sure his collection remains secure and available to future generations. It is a national treasure and should be treated in that manner by the state and private institutions that champion the cause of learning and education in Pakistan.


Originally published in Dawn (June 26, 2016)

The Nonpareil Translator: Munshi Tirath Ram Firozepuri

I begin by invoking Sa’adat Hasan Manto. Presently his name is much in the air presently. An endorsement from him should count for a lot with many readers, particularly who are still reaching for 40. Here is what Manto wrote in a sketch of Agha Hashr Kashmiri, the ‘Shakespeare of Urdu,’ in his wonderful book Ganje Firishte. ‘I had never seen any of Agha Sahib’s plays, for I was absolutely not allowed to go out of the house at night. Nor had I read his plays, for at the time I only enjoyed reading books like The Mysteries of the Court of London and English mystery novels translated by Tirath Ram Firozepuri.’

Manto was born in 1912, and so he must have been speaking of his reading habits in the early-to-middle 1920s, the time when he also began to learn how Urdu prose could effectively be turned into a vehicle for imagined lives. And the book he mentioned by its English title must have been also its multivolume Urdu version done by the same translator. In the 1920s and continuing till the end of the 1950s, it had to be a truly phlegmatic Urdu reader who had not read a few translations done by Munshi Tirath Ram Firozepuri.

Munshi Sahib, as I shall henceforward call him, was born in 1885, though I cannot confirm it; he died in 1954, and that too, sadly, I cannot confirm. I can only offer surmises. However, concerning his achievements, I stand on very firm ground: during a working life of less than forty years, Munshi Sahib produced more than 60,000 pages of translated prose fiction spread over more than 155 books.

That he always added Firozepuri to his name clearly indicates that Munshi Sahib considered Firozepur, Punjab, his place of origin. His command of Persian, and even some Arabic, also tells us that he had studied in some local madrassa. Firozepur, a small trading center at the time but gradually becoming better known as a military cantonment, had several madrassas and one government high school. It is safe to assume that Munshi Sahib learned English and got a taste for fiction during the time he did his matriculation, and that the school’s library and the local railway bookstall were the places where he discovered the books he admired and translated when he matured.

There is no evidence that Munshi Sahib went to college, for he made his debut in print only as Tirath Ram Firozepuri. Unlike Zafar Ali Khan or Zafar Omar and many more, who themselves, or their publisher, always wrote ‘B.A.’ after their names in the initial stages of their careers. Later, when some editors and publishers added ‘Munshi’ to his name, that too indicated that he was not a college graduate but, nevertheless, a man of some learning.

After matriculation around 1902 or 1903, Munshi Sahib moved to Lahore, which was then the most attractive place to be for any budding writer or journalist. It had many publishing houses and printing presses, and the colonial program for school textbooks was located there. Anyone desirous of earning a living with his pen could expect to do well in Lahore. We have no knowledge of Munshi Sahib’s early years in the city, and it is quite possible that he did some anonymous work as a translator at one of the flourishing presses.

The earliest mention of him that I have found occurs in the May 1910 issue of the respected journal Adib (Allahabad), where he appears as the author of an essay entitled ‘Qutub Minar’ (‘The Qutub Minar’). The essay fairly dispassionately presents all the conflicting arguments about the origins of the tower, then concludes that the evidence favored a Hindu origin. Incidentally, the subsequent issue of the journal carried an equally dispassionate essay by Khwaja Latifuddin Chishti in support of the Muslim claim. Both authors, however, insisted that it was a monument that all Indians should equally be proud of.

Between 1910 and 1913, Adib published several more articles by Munshi Sahib: ‘Akhbar-Navisi ki Ibtida’ (‘The Origins of Journalism’); ‘Alat-e Parvaz’ (‘The Flying Machines’); ‘Yunaniyon aur Romiyon ka Qadim Tariqa-e Ta’lim’ (‘Education in Ancient Greece and Rome’); ‘Qadim Hindu Farmanrava’on ke Huquq aur Fara’iz’ (‘The Privileges and Duties of Ancient Hindu Rulers’); ‘Qadim Hindustan men Kashtkaron ki Halat’ (‘The Condition of Farmers in Ancient India’); ‘Qadim Hindustan men Fann-i-Hava-Bazi” (‘The Science of Flying in Ancient India’).

Most of the above articles mention English language sources, and indicate his increasing command of the language for reading purposes. Another article, ‘Nazzara-e Bahisht va Dozakh: Dante ki nazm par Tabsara’ (‘A View of Paradise and Hell: A Review of Dante’s Poem’) is explicitly marked as a translation, though the original author is not named. And a story entitled ‘Chup ki Dad’ (‘The Reward of Silence’) is nothing but an Indianised version of some English story. It also indicates his early interest in tales of mystery. Many of the above titles suggest that he was also sympathetic to the revivalist/reformist movement of the Arya Samaj that had then caught the imagination of many North Indian Hindus, particularly in the Punjab. An interest in Bengal is evident too, though we don’t know if he read or spoke Bengali. However, in 1913—before Tagore received the Nobel—Munshi Sahib translated a collection of eight Bengali short stories, followed later by two separate volumes of short stories by the Nobel laureate.

The December 1912 issue of Adib contains a commendatory review of three nonfiction books by Munshi Sahib, and describes him as a frequent contributor of literary and learned writings to Urdu journals. One book, Fann-e Gharisazi (‘The Craft of Watchmaking’), explains how to repair clocks and watches, while another, ‘Ilaj bila Daktar (‘Curing Without a Doctor’), offers home remedies for common illnesses. Both books extensively use translated material. The third book, Angrezi Muhavarat (‘English Idioms’), is entirely original, and seeks to teach idiomatic English to Urdu readers through translation exercises. In fact, Munshi Sahib may have had in mind people like himself who wished to translate English fiction into Urdu, for the advanced exercises in the book are exactly of that nature; some of them have sentences that read like excerpts from mysteries. The two-part book clearly shows that by then he was comfortably conversant with written English.

The big moment of professional recognition in Munshi Sahib’s life, and the start of his long and sustained career as a translator, came in 1915, when his publishers, Lall Bros. of Naulakha, Lahore, started Tarjuman, ‘a monthly journal of Philosophy, Science, and Literature,’ with Munshi Sahib as its editor. Besides editing the journal his responsibilities included translating and serializing in its pages George W.M. Reynolds’s mammoth novel, The Mysteries of London. And when, in 1916, Zafar Omar’s Nili Chhatri, an Urdu adaptation of Maurice Leblanc’s The Hollow Needle, became an immediate hit, Munshi Sahib also began serializing in Tarjuman his own translation of Leblanc’s other major book, 813. He called it Inqilab-e Yorap, and it was an instant success. That encouraged him to translate more books by Leblanc, and subsequently also by other authors, all thrillers and mysteries. The translations were first serialized in Tarjumān, and when it stopped publication after a few years, they became a popular series to which people could subscribe to obtain them regularly and at a discount. These were straight translations, and not adaptations or ‘transcreations’ in the manner of Zafar Omar.

An advertisement by the Lall Bros in an undated fascicle of Ghurur-e Husn—Reynolds’s Agnes, or Beauty and Pleasure—gives us a good idea of his taste in popular fiction, and, more importantly, of the incredible pace he worked at. The ad lists four major works by Reynolds, and forty individual novels by others, all translated by Munshi Sahib. The four novels by Reynolds come to almost 12,000 pages, while the 40 diverse novels add another 12,000 pages. According to my estimate, Ghurur-e Husn was published in full—it runs to nearly 3,200 pages—sometime before 1939. Putting it all together, we would be right to conclude that within 20 years or so Munshi Sahib had published over 27,000 pages of translated fiction in Urdu! How many pages he had read in English before deciding what to translate is anybody’s guess. For someone who was only a matriculate, it suggests an astounding devotion to what was clearly a passion for him and not merely a vocation.

On the whole Munshi Sahib’s translations can be described as fairly accurate; they never cause any damage to the intentions of the original author. In one of the prefaces that he habitually added to his books, Munshi Sahib calls himself a sahih-nigar (lit. ‘correct-writing’) translator, then adds, ‘I have restricted myself to presenting the learned author’s ideas and words in their exact form. I am not one of those people who consider their qabiliyat (‘talent’) superior to the author’s, and start correcting his thinking.’ In the case of the rambling sagas that Reynolds produced and liberally littered with lengthy political and social commentaries, Munshi Sahib practiced liberal editing, excluding the bulk of such digressions while making sure that the central narrative flowed smoothly. In fact, in the case of some of the many side stories that Reynolds habitually introduced in his biggest sagas, The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London, Munshi Sahib turned them into separate short books. As for the mysteries and thrillers of a normal length, he did not abridge them in any significant manner, and only avoided being too literal. It would be fair to say that his main goal was to create an easy-flowing narrative that retained all that was essential in the original concerning its characters and action. Towards that end he was judicious in using idioms and proverbs, eschewing the more colorful ones, unlike his predecessors such as Mirza Ruswa and Amir Hasan Kakorvi who relished doing just the opposite. Munshi Sahib preferred to translate novels that were written in plain standard English and were not overly burdened with colorful slang or special turns of phrases—one reason, perhaps, why he did not translate any book by such American noir writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandlers, and Mickey Spillane, and limited himself to only one book by Leslie Charteris. Among his favorite authors were American and British masters of the ‘Classical’ period: J. S. Fletcher, Jacques Futrelle, Guy Boothby, Sax Rohmer, William Le Queux, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Valentine Williams.

In 1947, Munshi Sahib had no intentions of moving to India, but circumstances forced him to leave Lahore, together with his publisher, Narain Dutt Sehgal. The two settled in Jalandhar, and soon started a new series of publications. Munshi Sahib regained his momentum quickly, and began to produce four to five new translations annually. But the shock of leaving his beloved Lahore—in many post-1947 books he signed himself as ‘Avara-e Vatan’ or ‘Be-Aram’ Tirath Ram—and losing his lovingly put together library of hundreds of old and rare mystery books did not let him live for long. He is said to have died in 1954, perhaps in Delhi. Obituaries must have appeared in many journals, but I have not yet found any. The only notice of his death, together with a kind of tribute written by a Daya Krishna Gardish, can be found in his last translation, Klabfut ki Vapsi—Valentine William’s The Man with the Clubfoot. A brief quotation would throw some light on how many of Munshi Sahib’s fans looked at his work:

Richardson and Fielding wrote so much about domestic life, human character and society that those who came after them had to turn to sex to make their works appear new and interesting. French writers still do it. But in America and England some people rejected that destructive trend, and found new heights for their imagination’s flights. Thus was born the art of the detective story. That innovation became extremely popular, and now hundreds of new masterpieces of that genre appear annually, and are readily purchased by eager readers.

And so it was that at a time when Indian writers, imitating the 18th century literatures of Europe, were bent upon making sex the core of human character and consequently setting afire every Indian household, Munshi Tirath Ram made an effort to protect public mind from filth, and took up the challenge to present in Urdu masterpieces of English mystery fiction.

That such a view was not rare is attested by what Ijazul Haq Quddusi, the author of several learned books on the Sufis of Pakistan and a tome on ‘Iqbal and the ‘Ulama of India and Pakistan,’ wrote in his memoirs, Meri Zindagi ke Pachattar Sal: ‘Sharar’s novels and Munshi Tirath Ram Firozepuri’s translations gave me an understanding of Urdu. I call them my ustad-e ma’navi—[my real teachers]. Sharar’s novels taught me a new style of writing, and [Munshi Sahib’s] translations informed me about the ugly and festering cancer in the European society.’

Be that as it may, time passes, fashions change. Munshi Sahib’s publishers too passed away soon after, and no one in India made any effort to keep his wonderful translations in print. In Pakistan, pirated editions continued for a while, then stopped. But now a new effort seems to be on in Lahore to reprint his translations. Let us see if they can still have the instantly gripping effect they had on several earlier generations of readers, for whom Munshi Sahib’s name on a book guaranteed that it was a raton ki nind ura-dene-vala navil.



Originally appeared in DawnOctober 26, 2015.

God Bless A. R. Rahman

In 2017 we shall celebrate the 200th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian Muslim who was declared a kafir by the mullahs of India on more counts than any other person before him or after. Here is a partial list of the reasons why some mullah or other thought Sir Syed was beyond the pale of Islam. He does not believe that wearing Western clothes is against the Shari’a. He believes that Angels and Satan are not real beings and instead believes them to be human powers, as endowed by God, to do good or bad. He believes that the Quran does not mention any miracle attributable to the Prophet Muhammad. He believes that Islam ended slavery forever even during the Prophet’s life. He eats at a table, while sitting on a chair, and uses a knife and a fork. He shares his table with Christians, and also eats at their homes. As countable in his biography by Altaf Husain Hali, the list runs to more than fifty similar accusations.

One of Sir Syed’s most persistent detractors was a Maulvi Ali Bakhsh Khan, a Subordinate Judge in the colonial administration. When Ali Bakhsh Khan went on Hajj he spent more time in obtaining fatwas against Sir Syed and publishing them back in India. Sir Syed’s response was something to this effect: I’m proud of my kufr because it made possible my friend Ali Bakhsh Khan to obtain the blessings of a Hajj. On another occasion, when his detractors fell silent for a while, Sir Syed wrote in his journal, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, “I feel like that old biddy who was regularly teased by market urchins, and if any day it didn’t occur she would say, ‘What happened to the boys? Has some plague taken them?’”

Until now they used to be my examples of how best to respond to the fatwas that are headlined every other Thursday in the press—issued by some obscure entity eager to seek some easy publicity and written-up by some perfervid newsperson anxious to get into print that day. Now I have a third example, the statement issued by A R Rahman in response to the fatwa issued by Mufti Mahmood Akhtarul Qadri, the imam of Haji Alig Dargah Masjid, in response to a request made by Saeed Noori of the Raza Academy, Bombay. And what a classy response it is!

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah, and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: ‘I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health… why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (Peace be upon him) film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is kindness, about uplifting the poor, an and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

Read it in full; see how a genuine man of faith speaks, bearing witness to the faith that feeds his spirit and the talent he earns his living from, and considering both as gifts from the Divine and thus fully in tune with each other.

The trouble with people like Qadri and Noori is that they have split personalities and have as much stuff to hide as they profess to strut before us. And the news-writers go along out of ignorance—but also due to a lack of genuine curiosity. Qadri earns his living at a mosque attached to a dargah. Now if we went to a Deobandi mufti, he would be happy to issue a fatwa against anyone whose source of income is a dargah, for that is not what the Deobandis allow. For them: no dargahs; no grave-worship; no belief in any miracle-making saint. And the same savant would happily declare Noori a mushrik—one who shares his belief in God with a belief in another god—for Noori, when he goes to his ‘Bareli Sharif,’ bows before the grave of Ahmad Raza Khan, and touches his forehead to it. Likewise, God help the Deobandi who attends a meeting to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet but fails to stand up and sing along with the congregation when the preacher announces the Prophet’s birth. So it goes, and it gets worse every day. This rising sectarianism is to be blamed as much on the silence of the liberals in India, Muslims and non-Muslims—as on the belligerent vociferousness of the mullahs.

I am old enough to remember the time when the same kind of mullahs objected to the use of sound amplification in mosques. Even its use during the sermon part of the service on Fridays and the two Eids was considered an abominable innovation— a bid’a. Now even the tiniest mosque has two loudspeakers on its roof. One of the joys of my childhood in Barabanki was to wake up in the morning and listen to the music of the azaan as it came wafting over the air—in human dimensions. Now the same words turn into a painful cacophony as they blast into the air from at least eight different sets of loudspeakers. So here is a request to the newsperson who next goes to get the details of some fatwa from one of the savants from Bareli, Deoband, Nadva, Firangi Mahal, and so forth: please ask the savant what he thinks of the loudspeakers on his mosque; also ask him if there is not a ruling in several religious texts that no mosque should be built so close to another that its azaan—unamplified, of course—be heard in the other mosque? Then, if the mullah convinces you of the religious sanctity of his two loudspeakers, please move next door to his mosque, but please spare us his blathering calling it a fatwa. Please remember that a fatwa is not an edict; it is not binding on anyone; it can be countered by another fatwa; it dies with the death of the person who issues it; and it is never issued against some specific person. And please always tell us who might expect to gain some money or power from that fatwa.


Originally appeared in on September 17, 2015.

Meet Bibi Ashraf

She was born Ashrafun Nisa Begum in September 1840, in a Shia family that held a small zamindari in Bahnera, a small town in Bijnaur district, north-east of Delhi. She died in May 1903 in Lahore, where she was widely known as ‘Ustani Sahiba.’ Here we shall equally respectfully refer to her as ‘Bibi Ashraf,’ as was also done by some in her time. When she was growing up she was forbidden to learn to read and write. But when she died, Bibi Ashraf had been teaching little girls of Lahore to read and write — and much more — for 25 years. What had transpired? How did she obtain what her guardians had forbidden?

Bibi Ashraf grew up in her grandfather’s house. Her father had struck out on his own, much against the wishes of his father, and worked as a lawyer in the princely state of Gwalior, far away from Bijnaur. Her mother had died soon after giving birth to a second child, a son, when Bibi Ashraf was only eight. Consequently she was raised by her grandmother, who loved her, and an aunt, who did not, with everyone under the strict control of her grandfather.

Since there were other little girls in the extended family, a live-in ustani, a young Pathan widow, was hired to instruct them in homemaking talents such as cooking and sewing. She also taught them to ‘read’ the Quran, i.e. to vocalise the Arabic text but could not teach them how to read Urdu because she herself did not know it. After only a couple of years, however, the young ustani’s parents found a match for her and got her remarried. With that, Bibi Ashraf’s grandfather ended the girls’ education. “I can’t even bear the thought of having a stranger in my house teaching my girls,” he declared, “It would be better if the girls remained illiterate.”

Bibi Ashraf could have studied with her mother, but unfortunately she died very soon after the ustani’s departure. By then Bibi Ashraf had learned to vocalise seven chapters of the holy book. Her grandmother, seeing her inconsolable grief at losing her mother, told her to read those chapters every day, and then offer their ‘reward’ to her beloved mother’s soul. Bibi Ashraf was soon doing that several times every day. “The constant repetition improved my reading skill, and soon I could decipher and read forward on my own. In that manner, through God’s favour and my own effort, I finished the Quran in just one year, and a majlis was held to celebrate the occasion.”

But she still could not read Urdu, the language she spoke. Urdu texts did not come then, nor do they come now, equipped with extensive diacritical marks. And the few female relatives who could read Urdu refused to teach her. She begged and begged but they were either scared of her grandfather or just couldn’t be bothered. “‘What would you do with it if you learned to read?’ they said, ‘In any case, teaching isn’t easy, and we don’t have the time or energy to waste.’” Then, if she persisted or began to cry, they would say, “Your crying all the time made you lose your mother; God knows what further misfortune your tears might bring now”. On one such occasion, the little girl wiped her tears and walked away, but when alone she prayed to God for help, and also made a promise: “If I ever learned to read Urdu, God willing, I shall teach that skill to anyone who seeks it, and even forcibly to those who might be unwilling, for I shall never forget the pain I feel right now.”

She then decided to learn on her own, but first she had to find some texts to read. She sent the word out among her female relatives to let her have any devotional poems that they might have, promising to return them after getting them copied. She also asked her grandmother to get her some blank paper from the market. Very soon she had some poems and some paper, but who was there to make copies for her? She could not ask her fearsome grandfather and equally irascible uncle, and no female relative had the necessary skill since writing had always been forbidden to the women in her family.

Tenacious and intrepid, the little girl again decided to do it herself. “I resolved that when at noon everyone rested I shall make some ink with the soot from the tava in the kitchen and start copying. And that is exactly what I did. I gathered some soot, the lid from a water pot, and a few twigs from the broom, then sneaked up to the roof [to be by myself] and happily started copying a poem. Childhood can be so innocent — no sooner had I copied a few words than I felt I had won the battle.”

Before coming back downstairs she broke the ink-stained lid and threw away its pieces. That routine she followed for many days — much to the annoyance of some of the ladies: “They grumbled and cursed the wretch who stole a lid from the pots every day”. And then, much to her dismay, she discovered that though she had made copies she was still not able to read them. “I had spent so much time and effort, but for nothing. I tried but could not make any headway. Then God brought me a teacher.”

One day as she was reading the Quran a younger male relative asked her if she could help him with his daily Quran assignment — he wished to be saved from the thrashing he received daily from his Maulvi Sahib. She agreed. One day, when she was helping him with his assignment, a book fell out of his book bag. It was an Urdu book, its text unmarked with diacritics. “What book is that? I asked. The script is like that of a marsiya. Read me some of it.” The boy did. She liked the contents, and asked him to teach her to read that particular book. The boy refused — he didn’t have the time; the book was too difficult for her; she could never learn — but quickly changed his mind when she threatened to stop helping him. Her joy, however, was short lived. Three days later the boy was sent away to study at Delhi.

But Bibi Ashraf still had his book, and so once again she started teaching herself a new skill on her own. Months of effort finally brought success. She finished the book, then turned to the copies she had made, and found to her great delight that she could make sense of those scrawls. “I said to myself, ‘Whatever one gets, gets only through her own effort’. I then returned to my routine with twigs and kitchen blacking — considering them my true teachers — and started copying sentences from different books. After only a few days’ practice, I was able to freely write from memory.”

But she had to keep it a secret. Though her grandfather had passed away, her uncle was still at home. It was only after he joined his brother in Gwalior that Bibi Ashraf’s ability to read and write became known to all the females in the extended family in Bahnera. Many of them started coming to her to get letters to their husbands written. “The women would disclose to me their innermost secrets, things that they would never speak of in front of anyone. I understood only one-tenth of what they dictated. But the letters I wrote for them brought back replies.”

Then came the turmoil of 1857, and for 18 months the people in Gwalior received no news from Bahnera. When some peace had returned, her father sent a man to find out how everyone had fared. The man took back two letters with him, one from Bibi Ashraf’s grandmother that she had asked her own brother to write on her behalf, and one from Bibi Ashraf that she had written on her own. Her father wrote back to his mother, “Mamun sahib’s letter told me the news of only the members of the household; he didn’t write anything of the turmoil or about the other relatives. The girl’s note, however, made me very happy, for she wrote all that she had heard or seen. Her letter gave me the pleasure of a newspaper or a history book. I read it over every day. But tell me, who taught her to write?” On learning that she had done it on her own, he sent her many gifts; her uncle, however, was very upset, and sent only a chiding note.

In 1859, Bibi Ashraf was married to Syed Alamdar Husain, a second cousin, who had studied Arabic at the famous Delhi College. After a stint in a minor position in the Education Department, he had been appointed as the assistant professor of Arabic and Persian at the Government College, Lahore. Unlike the men of the previous generation, Husain brought his wife to Lahore, where they had four children. Only two survived beyond infancy. Then a bigger calamity happened. Husain died of tuberculosis in 1870; he was then only 39. (Incidentally, it was his vacancy that was then filled with the appointment of Muhammad Husain Azad, the famous writer.)

Shortly thereafter Bibi Ashraf lost her father too. The director of public education, an admirer of her late husband, offered scholarships to the surviving daughters and Bibi Ashraf a teaching job in the local girls’ school; she accepted the scholarships but declined the job, choosing to support the family by doing sewing and lace-making at home. But eventually, in 1878, some elders managed to persuade her to accept the job when it was again offered, and thus began her long career at the Victoria Girls’ School — and the fulfilment of the promise she had made to God when she was in despair over her own illiteracy.

We know about Bibi Ashraf because an equally remarkable woman left us a book about her. Muhammadi Begum was a novelist and poet; she was also the editor of the Tahzib-e Niswan, the famous weekly journal for women that her husband Munshi Mumtaz Ali had started publishing in 1899. (It is little known that it was one of Muhammadi Begum’s poems that provided the title for Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Bihishti Zevar — he quoted the poem but did not mention her name to protect his own modesty.) Muhammadi Begum knew Bibi Ashraf personally, and persuaded her to write several pieces for the journal, including an account of how she had learned to read and write. At Bibi Ashraf’s death Muhammadi Begum published a poem in Tahzib-e Niswan; then some time later she further expressed her love and admiration for Bibi Ashraf in a short biography entitled Hayat-e-Ashraf. It was privately published and remained lost till it was reprinted in 1978, though again for private distribution. It includes the autobiographical essay by Bibi Ashraf from which I have quoted above.

It is a book that deserves to be better known for several reasons. Besides telling the story of a remarkable person, it throws light on certain facets of middle-class Muslim women’s life in small towns in north India while also giving us a glimpse into the emergent changes in the lives of a similar cohort of women in Lahore at the end of the 19th century. I wrote about it in 1987 in an essay, ‘How Bibi Ashraf Learned to Read and Write’ in The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 6. I subsequently prepared an English translation of the entire book but have waited to publish it, for I also wish to include, in translation and in Urdu, the 18 short pieces that Bibi Ashraf published in Tahzeeb-e-Niswan between 1899 and 1902. All efforts to find the old files have so far failed. Like so many other things, we have failed to preserve most of the cherished Urdu journals of the past. May I hope now for some reader to step forward and prove me wrong?


Originally published in Dawn (Karachi).


Tarana, Naghma, Anthem—what’s in a name?

Jagan Nath Azad was the son of Tilok Chand Mahrum. Both were good enough poets, famous and much respected while they lived, but now largely forgotten. Azad was also an informed admirer of Iqbal, and his writings on the poet are still worth a look. His name, however, recently keeps coming up in odd newspaper columns in India and Pakistan. Odd, I hasten to add, only because the columns are not about poetry. People keep mentioning Azad’s name in the same context as Pakistan’s national anthem, claiming that he was the first to write one—at the express order, a few even maintain, of the Quaid. The latest repetition of that legend is the witty essay “Nationalism over Verse” by Mr. Khaled Ahmed (The Indian Express, June 12, 2015), which unquestioningly refers to Abdul Majid Sheikh’s assertion in his recent book, Lahore: 101 Tales of a Fabled City, that “the Lahore poet Azad was commissioned by Quaid-e-Azam to write Pakistan’s national anthem three days before the creation of Pakistan in 1947.” Not having seen Sheikh’s book I cannot say what his particular source of information was, but I have seen many articles in the Urdu press in the past making that same claim.

At the base of all the fascinating verbiage is one sentence that Azad wrote forty-nine years back, and that too in an essay that had nothing to do with anthems. Azad, a prolific writer, wrote in several genres successfully. Ankhen Tarastiyan Hain, his book of personal sketches of some of the many remarkable people he met in his life, came out in 1981. It contains a lovely essay about a wonderful man named Salahuddin Ahmad—most people who came in touch with him added Maulana to his name, though he was anything but a conventional Maulana. Salahuddin Ahmad was one of Urdu’s foremost journalists, and his magazine, Adabi Duniya, was arguably the most respected Urdu literary magazine in the Thirties and Forties of the previous century.

In that essay, dated September 16, 1966, Azad mentions his own situation in Lahore as the date of “Independence” approached. On August 14, 1947, he tells us, he was the only Hindu still living in Ram Nagar, the Lahore neighborhood that was once almost exclusively inhabited by his coreligionists. He writes: “And one day I discovered that I was the only Hindu left of that original population of sixty thousand. Everyone had left. In that state [of things], on the night of the 14th of August, I heard from the Lahore Radio my own Tarana-e Pakistan.” He then gives the full poem, which contains five stanzas, and adds: “If I’m not mistaken, that was perhaps the first tarana-e Pakistan that reached the ears of the listeners the moment Pakistan appeared on the world’s map, i.e. at midnight on the 14th of August.”

To my knowledge, Azad never claimed that he wrote Pakistan’s first qaumi tarana or “national anthem.” Nor, as some have asserted, that he had been asked by Jinnah to write one. Had that been the case, Azad would have mentioned it proudly in 1966. So how did the legend develop that Jinnah had personally invited Azad to write an anthem for Pakistan, and that he did so because Azad was a Hindu and Jinnah wished to establish the “secular” core of his communal demand, regardless of the fact that Jinnah was not known for any knowledge of Urdu poetry, and that the two were never together even in the same city? It seems to have developed out of an article by Luv Puri in which statements were quoted from an interview that Puri had done in 2004 when Azad was almost 85. (The interview was not published in Azad’s life. Hiw words are quoted only in Mr Puri’s English, and are often confusing—at one place Azad’s friends tell him that Jinnah had asked for Azad by name, then a few lines later it changes into “some Urdu-knowing Hindu.” Puri also claims that the poem was broadcast from Karachi, when Azad in 1966 explicitly mentioned the Lahore radio station. Only the original Urdu text can tell us what Azad actually said at the time.)

The problem lies in Urdu, in its occasional impreciseness caused by the habit of so many of its educated speakers—I include myself among them—of frequently thinking in English while speaking in Urdu. It so happens that Urdu has three words—tarana; naghma; and git—that have commonly been used in the context we are concerned with. And Azad had obviously written a poem at least a few days before August 14 that he called “Tarana-e Pakistan,” and, equally obviously, it had been in the possession of the Lahore Radio for sufficient time in order for it to be set to music and broadcast at the historic midnight moment.

Tarana is a Persian word, and thus related also to Sanskrit. John T. Platts, in his highly dependable dictionary (1884), traces it into the Sanskrit root “taru,” and gives as its primary meaning: “Modulation, melody.” He also mentions its use as the name of a kind of song—the well-known genre of Tarana in the North Indian style of classical music. Syed Ahmad Dehlavi, in his equally trustworthy Farhang-e Asafiya (1918, 2nd edition) gives the following: “Literal meaning, a handsome man; melody, song; a particular kind of song commonly referred to as Tillana.” Naghma, on the other hand, is of Arabic origin, and its only glosses, in both dictionaries, are the same as the primary meanings of Tarana, i.e. “melody, song.” Had Azad titled his poem “Naghma-e Pakistan,” there would be none of the present confusion. His preference for tarana was simply another example of the influential popularity of the two Taranas of Muhammad Iqbal. And when Iqbal had titled his first such poem, “Tarana-e Hindi” (The Indian Anthem)—“sare jahan se accha hindostan hamara, now a popular, ceremonial marching song of the Indian army—he could possibly have had in mind a future independent Indian nation, but, far more certainly, he was not at all thinking of military parades, raising of flags, and other ceremonial occasions where a national anthem is now prominently sung.

When anthems and national songs are mentioned in South Asian contexts, some mention is invariably made of Muhammad Iqbal and his two poems that have tarana in their titles. Khaled Ahmad too brought him up at the end of his essay, bemoaning the fact that Pakistan ignored its “national poet…while choosing its national anthem, but in India, a poem of his, ‘Saare Jahan se Accha,’ is an unofficial national song.” Then Prof. Harish Trivedi, in his equally witty riposte titled “Anthems and Ironies,” made more comments on Iqbal’s poem and also brought in his second tarana, calling it a “revised version” of the first. He also expanded upon Pan-Islamism, Iqbal’s changing worldview, Vande Matram, and Muslim abhorrence of “anthropomorphic deification.”

According to the late Dr. Gyan Chand Jain (Ibtida’i Kalam-e Iqbal, ba Tartib-e Mah-o-Sal, Hyderabad, 1988), Iqbal wrote the first tarana poem in August 1904. He was then a lecturer in Philosophy at the Government College, Lahore, where Lala Hardayal, the future revolutionary, was a student. Hardayal set up a Young Men’s Indian Association in opposition to the existing Young Men’s Christian Association at the college, and invited Iqbal to preside over its inaugural meeting. Iqbal agreed, but instead of a formal address, he recited the poem he had expressly written for the occasion. It was so well received, a contemporary report says, that he had to present it a second time at the conclusion of the meeting. Iqbal’s title for the poem was “Hamara Des” (Our Land). Apparently, Iqbal gave the poem its present title when he published his first Urdu collection, Bang-e Dira (1924), when he is known to have extensively revised or edited many poems that he chose to include. (He excluded quite a few of his earliest poems, including an elegy on the death of Queen Victoria.) In any case, his tarana was an “anthem” only in the most common sense of that word in English: a rousing song identified with some specific group of humans.

The new title, however, placed the poem on an equal footing with another, later—post 1908—poem, titled “Tarana-e Milli” (The Millat’s—All Muslims’—Anthem), also included in that collection. It is not a “revised version” of “Tarana-e Hindi” but an independent new poem. Its famous opening couplet reads: “chin-o-‘arab hamara, hindostan hamara // muslim hain ham, watan hai sara jahan hamara” (China and Arabia are ours; India is ours too. We are Muslims; the entire world is our homeland). Posterity, sad to say, has largely read the two poems as antagonistic to each other, with the later poem, many claim, canceling out the earlier, and reflecting, as Prof. Trivedi holds, the “Pan-Islamism” that Iqbal allegedly championed after discarding an earlier Nationalism.

To my mind, Iqbal viewed the first poem as a patriotic anthem, while the second poem to him was just as much a rejection of territorial nationalism as it was a celebration of an exclusively Muslim group consciousness. That is made clear by the poem—a fierce denunciation of “Nationalism”—that immediately follows. Its title, “Wataniyat” (lit. Homeland-ism), is followed by an explanatory subtitle: “ya’ni watan ba-haisiyat ek siyasi tasawwur ke” (I.e. Homeland as a political concept). Iqbal, manifestly, wished to leave no impression that he was against Patriotism; after all, the Prophet himself had championed it. He only wished to reject modern, territorially defined Nationalism that then dominated political scenes across the world, a sentiment he expressed more explicitly many times elsewhere. Consider this couplet from “Khizr-e Rah,” one of his major poems, in which the legendary figure Khizr, his chosen “guide on the path,” lists for Iqbal’s benefit the theoretical concepts that bedevil contemporary world’s thinking: “nasl, qaumiyat, kalisa, saltanat, tahzib, rang // Khwajgi ne khub chun chun kar banae muskirat,” “Race, Nation, Organized Religion, State, Civilization, Color of the Skin—what wonderful soporifics Capitalism has assembled for you!” Tagore and Iqbal, had they ever exchanged ideas over a cup of tea, would have quickly found agreement on the dangers of blind Nationalism.

Bang-e Dira, in fact, contains two other poems that are of acute relevance in this regard. One is clearly marked as a “national song”—its Urdu title reads, “Hindustani Baccon ka Qaumi Git.” The non-use of taraana in the title is suggestive of an effort to avoid calling the poem a “national anthem.” The other poem comes immediately after this “national song,” and is titled “Naya Shiwala” (The New Temple). Both were written before 1905. Given the frequent brouhaha concerning some Indian Muslims refusal to sing the famous national song Vande Matram, it is worth quoting one line from the latter poem: “Khak-e Watan ka mujh ko har zarra dewata hai” (Every particle of my homeland’s dust is a god to me). I doubt if Iqbal would have had had any objection to the “anthropomorphic deification” in Vande Matram as opposed to the history and politics of the novel where the song originally appeared. His thinking on Nations and Homelands may or may not have altered with time—a matter that will forever remain contested—but the fact that Iqbal chose to retain all the four, above-mentioned poems in his very first Urdu collection is a strong reminder that we should think twice before pigeon-holing him in any fashion. Doing otherwise will only be to our own loss.

As for the question, Was Azad’s poem Pakistan’s first “national anthem”? the answer lies in asking When and where was a national anthem first sung or played in Pakistan? To my mind, it was when the Pakistani flag was first raised after the Union Jack had been lowered, and when Jinnah took the first ceremonial salute. Someone should find out what happened in Karachi at those moments. From what I remember reading decades back, it was only an instrumental piece of music based on the first stanza of Iqbal’s poem “The Earth Welcomes Adam” that begins: khol ankh zamin dekh falak dekh, fiza dekh // mashriq se ubharte hue suraj ki zia dekh (Open your eyes and see the earth and the sky // see the brilliance of the sun rising in the east). The music was composed by some unit of the Pakistan army, and it had been asked to do so because Jinnah did not wish to have “God Save the Queen” played at the march past. Let’s recall that both India and Pakistan were not then republics, and had only Governors General—formally “appointed” by the Queen.


First published in on July 19, 2015.


P.S. Soon after publication, a friend forwarded an important link—a detailed article in Dawn (Karachi) from 2011. I was not aware of it, nor it appears was Khaled Ahmed. Too bad for both of us.


The “Magic-making” Mr. Reynolds

One of the earliest reviews of Mirza Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada appeared in Mi’yar (Lucknow) in 1899. It began: “Taken as a whole this tale is written on the same model that Mr. Reynolds used to write his Rosa Lambert.” Note the confident — even if erroneous — reference to George William MacArthur Reynolds. The anonymous reviewer knew that most of his readers were by then well familiar with the English novelist.


Reynolds — radical politician, muckraking journalist, and one of the most prolific novelists in the English language — was born in a well-to-do family in 1814 but lost his parents while still young. Sent by his guardian to study at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Reynolds soon ran away to live on his own and by his talents alone — the latter included thieving and gambling with loaded dice. A trip to France, soon after the Revolution of 1830, made him a life-long radical in politics, and a relentless champion of the poor and the exploited. He also discovered his talent for writing, and used it multifariously on returning to London. Tracts, stories, novels, journals, newspapers —Reynolds used every available print medium to propagate his views and champion radical economic and political reform. To his good fortune, Reynolds’s literary career coincided with rapidly increasing general literacy in the country, and his writings quickly became wildly popular with the newly literate men and women of the working class. Most of his novels were serialized in his ‘penny’ paper, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, a Journal of Democratic Progress and General Intelligence, later renamed Reynolds’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Arts, which at the height of its popularity was selling as many as 300,000 copies every week. One list of his works contains 43 novels, including two that may well be the most massive in English: The Mysteries of London (1848) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1856). A contemporary of Charles Dickens, Reynolds saw his popularity eventually decline in comparison, as did his kind of radical politics. After his death in 1879, Reynolds was soon forgotten, and today remains only a footnote in standard histories of English novel.

That has also been his fate in Urdu. But between 1895 and 1925, Reynolds was the most avidly read novelist in Urdu, rivaling, possibly surpassing, in popularity the famous triumvirate of Nazir Ahmad, Ratan Nath Sarshar, and Ruswa. Reynolds’s first novel to appear in Urdu was Leila; or, the Star of Mingrelia (1856). It was translated by Muhammad Amir Hasan of Kakori, and initially serialized in the weekly Avadh Akhbar (Lucknow) under the title Fasana-e ‘Ala-Din-o-Laila, and subsequently appeared as a book in 1890. Much of its appeal probably lay in its ‘Oriental’ milieu and the love story that came bundled with international politics. Its success led Hasan to translate and similarly publish a second novel, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (1847), as Vegner-o-Niseda.

By 1896, the famous Newal Kishore Press had on offer three more translations, and other publishers were beginning to take notice. Four years later, 11 books by Reynolds were available in Urdu, and by 1918 the number had increased to 24, including the mammoth The Mysteries of London. Also by then, several of the earlier translations had gone through two or more printings, and a few novels had been translated more than once. Rosa Lambert; or, the Memoirs of an Unfortunate Woman, for example, could now be read in Urdu in two separate translations, and two more followed a few years later.

These translations were always selective — they invariably left out Reynolds’s long digressions into social and political commentary of his times — and much shorter than the densely printed long narratives that Reynolds always produced. Except for one, the translators seldom added anything of their own. Munshi Girja Sahay, however, freely put in his own thumris and ghazals in his abridged version of Margaret; or, the Discarded Queen (1857), converting the novel into something like a Scottish nautanki! The covers of these books and their advertisements often added jadu-nigar or jadu-raqam to the author’s name, turning him into: “The magic-making Mr. Reynolds”.


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Among the admirers of Reynolds who also became his translators were such notables as Munshi Sajjad Husain, the t please not Abdul Sharar. editor of Avadh Punch, who translated Master Timothy’s Bookcase (1842) as Dhoka ya Tilismi Fanus; Abdul Halim Sharar, the famous novelist, who translated May Middleton; or, the History of a Fortune (1855) as Khubi-e Qismat; the poet Riyaz Khairabadi, who translated Loves of the Harem (1855) as Haram-Sara; and Naubat Rai Nazar, a major literary figure at the time, who translated Agnes; or, Beauty and Pleasure (1855) as Sham-e Javani. Zafar Ali Khan, famous for his newspaper, Zamindar, translated the first three parts of The Mysteries of London as Fasana-e Landan; the work was then completed by Tirath Ram Firozepuri, who later translated The Mysteries of the Court of London as Nazzara-e Paristan; The Massacre of Glencoe,a Historical Tale (1853) as Khuni Talvar; Joseph Wilmot; or, the Memoirs of a Manservant (1854) as Gardish-e Afaq; and Agnes as Ghurur-e Husn.

“In those days everyone talked of Reynolds’s novels,” wrote Munshi Premchand (b. 1880) about his reading habits in youth. “Urdu translations were coming out right and left and handily sold. I too passionately loved those books.” No wonder then that the great writer’s first book, Asrar-e Ma’abid (Mysteries of Places of Worship), was a modest homage to Reynolds’s two Mysteries books, as were Sharar’s Husn ka Daku (The Robber of Beauty) and Asrar-e Darbar-e Harampur (Mysteries of the Court of Harampur).

It is fascinating that the melodramatic historical romances and the tales of decadence and crime among the rich and the noble of England that so much pleased England’s working-class men and women, for whom explicitly they were written, became such a huge success with the Urdu-speaking men of the ashraf and the newly emergent middle class in India. The emphasis on men is deliberate, for there is no evidence that Reynolds was ever avidly read by Indian women. In fact, it is quite likely that the brothers and husbands of those women kept Reynolds’s books away from them, labeling the books as ‘prurient’ or ‘sensational,’ while enjoying the same themselves. It is also noteworthy in that regard that a similar reception was not given to Charles Dickens, either then or later. To my knowledge, the first translation of any of his novels appeared only in the 1950s.

These translated melodramas played a major role in the development of the novel in Urdu. They taught many a thing to budding Urdu writers of the time: naturalism in descriptions of physical landscapes, realism in the delineation of urban glamour and squalor, literary strategies for creating suspenseful narratives, and much more. Here is what Pundit Bishambhar Nath wrote in the preface to his translation of The Seamstress; a Domestic Tale (1851) as Fasana-e Sozan-e ‘Ishq (before 1918): “This novel will please readers because [Urdu] novelists chiefly rely on excellent dialogues. When apt responses are given, or when someone tells an anecdote to another person, the result is always delightful for the readers. That delight, however, is like a dish that lacks salt if the narration does not also describe the physical gestures of the protagonists: the manner of their speaking, the expressions on their faces — the change in colour, the raising of the brow, or the casting of a glance, their delight or despair as they speak, or the state of fright or anger or bashfulness they might be in. [In short] the writer should tell us all that as if he were himself an eyewitness.”

Similarly informative about the influence of these translations on contemporary literary taste is the following comment from a reader of Fasana-e ‘Ala’uddin-o-Laila, included in its first appearance as a book in 1890: “The dastaan and fasana that were written in our country in the past, or are written now, consider it a sin to use readily accessible and unadorned language, or present a photographic image of a place or occasion…. This novel seems to have been translated with the purpose of enhancing the ability of our writers in properly delineating an incident (vaqi’a-nigari) and producing narratives that are also edifying (natija-angez).”

The most useful book in Urdu on Reynolds, and also the only one exclusively devoted to him, is Mistar Je Dablu Rinalds ki Savanih-‘umri by a Mir Karamatullah of Amritsar. It was published from Lahore around 1910, and deserves to be properly edited and republished. Academic historians of Urdu fiction, however, have not done justice to Reynolds. They have either ignored him or, like Ahsan Faruqi and Ali Abbas Husaini, noticed him only as a negative presence. Faruqi, however, has astutely pointed out how Sharar, in most of his historical romances, owed much more to Reynolds than to Sir Walter Scott. Azimushshan Siddiqui, more recently, has given a more detailed, but less analytical, account. A valuable introductory essay on Reynolds also appeared in Dawn (July 20, 1981) written by Muhammad Salimur Rahman, the reclusive savant of Lahore. But scholars of Urdu fiction have yet to do justice to “the magic-making Mr. Reynolds” and his devoted translators; both need to be given their rightful place in the history of the Urdu novel.


Originally appeared in Dawn (Karachi), July 17, 2015.

Islamophobia and Blasphemy

I have huge respect for Javed Anand and the work he has been doing (with Teesta Setalvad) for a few decades. But I would like to raise some caveats concerning his piece ‘On the other side of fear‘ (IE, September 29).

His essay chiefly consists of three parts. In the first, he rightly condemns the manner in which Muslims in some countries have protested against the notorious anti-Islam video. Next, he asserts that something new is taking place now: a “reiteration… by a growing number of Muslim scholars that Islam too rests on the freedom bedrock and the very notion of blasphemy is ‘un-Islamic’.” In support of this claim, Anand refers us to unnamed editorial-writers and religious leaders in the Urdu press, and in particular draws our attention to a “boxed” letter from a Saudi Arabia-based Indian Muslim, Abdul Rehman Mohammed Yahya, that simultaneously appeared on September 24 in three Urdu journals, Sahafat, Inqilab and Rashtriya Sahara. To quote Anand: “The gist of the long letter is a rhetorical question addressed to fellow Muslims: ‘What did Prophet Muhammad do in the face of repeated insults heaped on him during his lifetime?’ The answer: he forgave them.”

Surely, the present Muslim definition of “blasphemy” is not limited to “any insult to the Prophet of Islam”? Even in India, there are at least two prominent anti-”blasphemy” movements at play among the Muslims under the guise of Tahaffuz (Protection): Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Protection of the Finality of Prophethood), accusing the Ahmadis of “blasphemy”; and Tahaffuz-i-Namus-i-Sahaba (Protection of the Honour of the Companions of the Prophet), accusing the Shias of “blasphemy”. Not to mention the accusations of “blasphemy” against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Second, while Anand is right in stating that it “is a universal Muslim belief that the Prophet never retaliated to repeated insults to him, through either word or deed”— and, indeed, the vast majority of Muslims live by that belief, and many may even try to emulate it in their own lives — it is also true that a few enemies of the Prophet were ordered by him to be mortally punished, including one or two who verbally abused him. A devout Muslim, therefore, may claim a right to follow whichever tradition suits his own inclination.

The issue should not be what the Prophet did or did not do, for once we raise it we only fall into an easy trap. It becomes a conflict between only apparently equal claims of righteousness; quickly, it becomes another instance, at best, of sectarianism, and, at worst, of “blasphemy”. In any case, a devout Muslim may aspire to emulate the Prophet’s actions but by the same token can never claim to have done so. Yahya’s letter is a good sign, but so are also a few other articles. These are acts of personal piety, and one must be thankful for them. But the same boxed space — actually there is nothing special or prominent about it — in Sahafat (Delhi) that carried Yahya’s letter contained on September 29 a letter on the same subject of the video from a Muhammad Ziaur Rahman, department of Urdu, Delhi University, under the title: “Yahud wa Nasara Musalmanon ke Khullamkhulla Dushman” (Jews and Christians are blatant enemies of the Muslims). Rahman claims, among other things, that on September 11 this year, the film “Innocence of Muslims” was shown in cinemas across the United States, and that the United States rained missiles on Iraq when a woman in Baghdad named Laila Al-Attar drew a cartoon of President George Bush [in 2003].

In the final part of his essay, Anand highlights “Islamophobia” in Western countries, using as his chief source a recent book, The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean. I confess I have only read about the book, and not the book itself. Its significance seems to lie in what its subtitle describes: “How the right manufactures fear of Muslims.” It is the political right in the US that Lean is concerned with, and “Islamophobia” is not what describes it. The American right has its own political agenda; its domestic dimension, in fact, is its chief driving force. “Islamophobia” is only one of its many tactics — similar, to my mind, to the fear-mongering of the right in India, as also of the right among Indian Muslims. Vis-à-vis the latter, it mainly takes the form of “anti-Jewism” and anti-Ahmadism, together with the cry of an exceptional and absolute “victimhood”. From the perspective of the health and security of any democratic polity or its civic society, however, the two slogans—“Islam is a cancer” and “Islam is in danger”—are equally pernicious and corrosive.

Anand closes his comments by asking a rhetorical question: “Are Muslims being made the “new Jews” in post-Holocaust West?” The influence and success of the Israel lobby in American politics should not mean that anti-Semitism has disappeared in the US. It is as much present now as is racism, though not in the blatant manner it used to be before World War II, and, judged by what appears in the Urdu journals of India and Pakistan, still is among much of the Muslim population in South Asia.


Originally published in The Indian Express (New Delhi), October 2, 2012.

English/Urdu Bipolarity Syndrome in Pakistan


An editorial—‘Into the Open’—in the Express-Tribune of December 16, 2014, begins: ‘There has been much speculation, frequently alarmist or simply ill-informed, as to the extent or otherwise that the Islamic State (IS) has a presence in Pakistan. Government ministers have gone on-the-record to say that there is no IS presence, but there are reports of supportive wall-chalking and the circulation of literature that supports the IS from several parts of the country.’ It then goes on to allow that ‘there are parts of the country where the extremist mindset has been fostered and grown over many years, and the ideology of the IS may find fertile ground to root itself in,’ and offers two examples. One is of Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid in Islamabad—the paper charges: ‘[Aziz] is happy to declare that he holds the group in high regard’—and the other is the case of some ‘female students of Jamia Hafsa [a part of the same institution] who have prepared and circulated a video extolling the IS.’

The naming of names is commendable even if it amounts to only one institution, for the practice is rather rare in Pakistani editorials and columns. But I wonder why the editors of the Express-Tribune had go to the trouble of finding just one example so far away from their comfortable offices when they could have easily found an equally redoubtable supporter of IS in their own sister Urdu journal, the Daily Express. I, of course, mean the one and only Orya Maqbul Jan, the self-proclaimed expert on International Finance, Muslim Political History, and the Doomsday. Consider his column of November 17, 2014—titled Taqsim Wazih Ho Rahi Hai’ (‘Lines are now clearly drawn’). In it he ever so blithely argued that Syria was the place where lines had been clearly drawn between Islam and non-Islam, and where would likely be, in his view, ‘the headquarters of [the promised] Imam Mehdi and the capital of his Caliphate.’ He then expanded his argument by quoting two alleged hadith. According to one, the Prophet allegedly prophesied that before the end of the world there would be a decisive battle between Muslims and Christians near Aleppo, and that, according to the second alleged hadith, the best among the Muslims at that time would be those who would do the hijrat to Syria—in other words those who would leave their lands to join the Mehdi’s army.

A few days later, on December 5, 2014, Mr. Jan shifted from Doomsday forecasts to Political History and questioned the sincerity of any Muslim who accused Amirul Mominin Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his IS crowd of wanton killing. I cannot reproduce here his long and a bit convoluted argument—it should be read in Urdu to get its full flavour—but this is how he closed: ‘According to all the principles of Political Science the Daulat-e Islamiya [i.e. IS] is a state; it is also a state according to those who champion the cause of a Muslim Social/Political Contract (musalmanon ka nazm-e ijtima’i).” He then proceeded to argue that in 1988 the revolutionaries in Iran were fully justified in declaring Iranian Communists and Liberals to be mulhid (heretics) and munafiq (dissembling enemies) and therefore fully deserving execution as enemies of the Revolutionary Islamic State. If that was right in 1988, he asked his co-religionists, why should it be wrong and un-Islamic now?

Then, only a day before the Express-Tribune published its editorial, Mr. Jan published the second part of a long essay against contemporary democracies, arguing in favor of a system where only certain ‘worthy’ individuals should have the right to choose the ruler of a Muslim state, and that once a Caliph had been chosen in that manner it was incumbent on all Muslims to obey him. No one must challenge a ‘chosen Caliph,’ he wrote, and then, expectedly, quoted another alleged hadith in which the Prophet allegedly ordered that in situations where two persons claimed the title and obtained allegiances (bai’at) from different supporters, ‘the person to make the second claim must be executed.’

Now it is quite possible that the common owner of the two journals has issued strict orders that the people of one journal should never question or even read what the other publishes. That would make good business sense. Each journal then meets the expectations of the audience the owner and his advisors imagine for it, and does nothing to rock the boat of commerce.

The same business acumen might be seen in two other sets of twin publications that I am slightly familiar with: the hellfire and brimstone in some of the columns of Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt do not find their way into the columns of The News and The Nation, just as the moderate and rational mode of thought in most columns of the latter two does not seep into the la-la musings that the former two mainly peddle. Most instructional in that regard are the English and Urdu versions of the column that the ‘Father of Islamic Bomb’ Dr. A. Q. Khan writes in The News and Jang. When writing on some political issue he always appears more subdued in English, but lets loose in Urdu. In the same two newspapers, Ansar Abbasi, another popular columnist, takes an easier way out by writing on certain subjects only in Urdu, avoiding them in English and in general dampening down his rhetorical flourishes.

Not quite coincidental to the above is the fact that these same conglomerates make piles of money presenting endless talk shows in Urdu on the channels they own, but have not done much to provide anything on the same channels that could possibly reflect the moderate posture of their English publications. They know what sells, and in what language.

But perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree. It may be more accurate to assert that the ‘Anglophone’ population in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad prefers it that way. Who are these ‘Anglophones?’ The people who quickly switch to English when after starting a serious conversation in Urdu, seldom buy and then read an Urdu newspaper, and prefer to look with disdain at what they may perchance see in Urdu—’Just some more backward thinking.’—rather than take it as seriously as any scribbling from the English language sister journals of the same Urdu dailies. As I wrote I tried to recall some serious engagement with Urdu columnists in any English newspaper of Pakistan, but nothing came to mind. I hope I am wrong.

On the other hand, to see how juvenile a view ‘Anglophone’ Pakistanis take of what is published in Urdu newspapers just check the section, ‘Nuggets from the Urdu Press,’ in any issue of The Friday Times. This week’s (Dec. 19, 2014) issue contains a dozen or so such ‘nuggets.’ The shortest is titled, ‘Widower runs away on the day of second marriage,’ and reads: ‘According to Nai Baat (November 26, 2014), a widower and father of three ran away from his home in Narang Mandi on the day of his second marriage. He was caught from Lahore, where he said he was joking about wanting to get married again, only to see if someone would give him their daughter. A panchayat seized his tractor and trolley when he failed to pay a Rs. 1 million fine.’ Giggle, giggle!

Never mind that Nai Baat is generally considered to be the paper of preference for the ‘enlightened’ and ‘liberal’ supporters of the Jama’at-e Islami, and should be taken as seriously as The Friday Times, if not more so, where the political, intellectual and cultural future of the country is on the table.

Two Verses of Ghalib



Two Verses of Ghalib

(for Fran Pritchett)

There is a Persian couplet by Ghalib that has long fascinated me. It is quite unusual, even for Ghalib, for it employs a theme that to my belief was never so clearly expressed by any other South Asian poet be it in Persian or in Urdu.

با من میاویز اے پدر فرزند آذر را نگر
هر کس که شد صاحب نظر دين بزرگاں خوش نكرد

The two lines may roughly be translated as follows:

Do not quarrel with me, father; look, instead, at Ázar’s son—

He who gains a discerning eye never favors ancestral ways.

Ghalib is, of course, alluding here to Ibrahim/Abraham, Prophet or Patriarch, whose father, according to the Qur’an, was named Ázar. He was, we are further told, the high priest to an idolatrous king, and wished to raise his son in the same faith. The boy Ibrahim, however, refused, since he had gained a radically different certitude—as much through his own deductive powers as through God’s guidance. This is how the Qur’an (6:74–79) tells the story:[1]

“(74) Lo! Abraham said to his father Azar: ‘Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error.’ (75) So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude. (76) When the night covered him over, he saw a star; he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said: ‘I love not those that set.’ (77) When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘Unless my lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’ (78) When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to God. (79) For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to God.’”

On another occasion, the young Ibrahim secretly broke all the idols in the temple except the biggest. When accused of vandalism the next day he confounded the accusers by retorting that they should instead ask the big idol since they considered it god.

It is this questioning, independently thinking, iconoclastic Ibrahim that Ghalib celebrates in that verse—an Ibrahim who put his faith in a unique and transcendent God but only after fully employing his God-given intellect.

This young Ibrahim, as we also know, is very different from the older prophet and patriarch of the Bible and the Qur’an. The patriarch readily abandons a wife and a son in a wilderness to please another wife, and only a miraculous intervention by God saves the two. Another time, the same patriarch hastens to sacrifice his son on account of a dream that reminds him of a reckless and uncalled for promise he had made long ago. Once again, God has to directly intervene to avert the calamity. In other words, the patriarch Ibrahim/Abraham unquestioningly submits to what he only too readily takes to be God’s wish, and fails to employ the questioning intellect he had used as a boy. And that habit of unquestioning submission seems to be his believing sons habit too.
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