12. July 2017 · Comments Off on Old Book Catalogs · Categories: Archive, Urdu Language and Literature · Tags: , , , ,

(The following appeared as the ‘Preface’ in a book in Urdu—Fihrist-e Kutub,Siddīq Bukdepo, Lakhna’u (Delhi: Dilli Kitab Ghar, 2016)—that I jointly put together with Dr. Abdur Rasheed of Jami’a Millia University, New Delhi.)


Though Urdu books had started to appear in printed form much earlier book printing in Urdu properly took off in the early 1840s when lithography reached India. Invented in 1796 by Johann Alois Senefelder (1771–1834), a German actor and playwright who needed to produce his own writings in an easier and cheaper manner than was allowed by conventional printing, the process turned out to be ideal for Urdu once it reached India. The technology was simple, and the required equipment—some limestone slabs, a hand press—was not prohibitive in cost. Most importantly, the technique perfectly accommodated the skills of the existing population of traditional scribes who had calligraphed Urdu and Persian books for generations. By 1850 there were any number of litho presses across North India, in big towns and small, that were soon steadily producing Urdu books on assorted subjects for general consumption. A few also published weekly or biweekly newspapers that also served to draw attention to their books. The most prominent Urdu press of the 19th century, the press of Munshi Newal Kishore of Lucknow—it had branches in several cities—could have been the first such establishment to publish an independent catalog of its publications, which it then made available to booksellers and individual buyers alike. Its earlier known catalog is dated 1874, and a properly edited reprint of the 1896 edition was recently made available.

It is safe to assume that by the first decade of the new century the practice had been taken up by other large publishers too, in particular the two major ones at Lahore: the Dar-al-Isha’at Punjab of Munshi Mumtaz Ali and the Matba’ Khadim-al-Ta’lim of Munshi Mahbub Alam. These catalogs, made available gratis or at a nominal cost recoverable when an order was placed, were godsend to the booklovers who lived in places where there were no bookstores but who could take advantage of the new, increasingly expanding and efficient postal service. Soon a few other people in the book trade, those who themselves published only a few books but stocked and sold hundreds more of other publishers—e.g. the Nizami Book Depot of Budaun, and the Siddiq Book Depot and Al-Nazir Book Depot of Lucknow—were also issuing general catalogs that catered to an enthusiastic clientele not restricted to any region or topic.

The book at hand is a consolidated/amalgamated reprint of two catalogs published by the Siddiq Book Depot separated by 14 years. We don’t know the history of the establishment. It was most likely named after the owner, and though it published quite a few books under its own imprint over the years its main business was stocking and selling Urdu books from all over India. I recall visiting it often in the 1950s. It existed in a corner of Aminabad, Lucknow’s main shopping area in those days. No browsing was available. One sat on a chair in the verandah in front of the shop and asked for a book or a particular author’s publications. The owner sat at the mouth of the long narrow interior of the shop and called out to his assistants. If the book was well-known or sold well for some other reason it was brought out right away from one of the shelves, but in all other cases the owner would call out a number and a small bundle containing a dozen or so books wrapped in cloth would come down from an unseen space above. The owner would then unwrap the bundle and present you with the book to inspect or call out for some other bundle if the requested book was not found in it. One could of course browse through the other books in the bundle, but asking for too many books without quickly setting aside a few for actual purchase was definitely not encouraged. If one bought enough books one could ask for and obtain a complimentary copy of their printed catalog, other wise one had to buy it like any other book. One of the catalogs that we used contains numbers in the description column that most likely referred to the serial number of the bundles kept in the attic above the shop.

Why publish an old book catalog, and that too of a bookshop long finished and gone? After all, the catalog of a functioning library or bookshop comes with promises of discovery and reading pleasure at least to some of its readers. You can actually gain access to the enticing discoveries if you have the necessary money and other resources. The book in hand no doubt contains listings that would both surprise and delight any reader it however comes with no promise of access.

As we well know at least since the recovery of the great Arabic tome of the tenth century, Kitab-al-Fihrist of Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim—a bookseller and a calligrapher, in addition to be a scholar and bibliophile—all catalogs are extremely useful. Each is preeminently a snapshot, a vivid image of a people’s or a language’s literary/intellectual wealth. The published catalog of a library displays for our benefit what the library had available for its readers/borrowers at a particular time in history. It also informs us—if we are curious in that regard—that the listed books had been published before that date. It does not, however, tell what books were actually read, or which of them were more popular than others. Similarly the catalog of a bookseller, if dated, tells us what books were available to any buyer in that year. And again, it helps us roughly date a book if listed in it. The important difference between a library catalog and that of a bookseller’s is that while the former shows what books were available at a particular place and under other restricting conditions the latter tells us what was available for common purchase to any booklover across the country or even beyond. The former reflects the preferences of a particular collector or institution, the latter makes us aware of the choices that were available to a much larger cohort that was not restricted to a particular city or region.

Academic Urdu scholarship over the years has produced several valuable literary histories, implicitly also narrating a history of the language. But even the most comprehensive does not tell the entire story; all of them place almost exclusive emphasis on what they consider ‘classics’ or ‘canonical.’ These literary histories overlook books that would otherwise be considered foundational for producing an intellectual history of Urdu speakers, nor do they pay much attention to what they only infrequently, and almost grudgingly, subsume under the rubric of ‘popular literature.’ Additionally, Urdu literary historians pay scant attention to translations and the significant role they played in the formation and cultivation of literary taste and talent in Urdu during the final decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Given the large scale closure of public libraries in North India since 1947 and the destruction, through deliberate neglect as much as natural causes, of Urdu collections in those that still survive it is only through the recovery of old booksellers’ catalogs that we might hope to establish some sense of what was at a particular time published and read in Urdu. Some examples should help.

The name ‘Bahram’ or ‘Bahram Daku’ was not too long ago synonymous with exciting reading for Urdu readers of mystery fiction. The character first appeared in 1916, in the novel Nili Chhatri by Zafar Omar. (It was an Indianized version of Maurice Leblanc’s The Hollow Needle.) I knew about the wide popularity of Omar’s book but the full sense of its influence came to me only after went through the 1936 catalog and found that even twenty years after its publication the book was not only still in print it had in fact generated over forty other novels about ‘Bahram.’ Also such titles as Pili ChhatriLal Chhatri, and Jadid Nili Chhatri!

Further, the same catalog made me aware of the fact that just as Hindi popular fiction included a genre described as ‘tilismi or tilismati’ novels so did also Urdu, at least so far as the clients of Siddiq Book Depot in 1936 were concerned. The same catalog lists ten or so novels described as ‘tilismi,’ out of which four are also described as jasusi. That the cataloguer had some clear sense of genres and the books’ contents is suggested by the fact that he described Mirza Ruswa’s Khuni ‘Ashiq (‘The Murdering Lover’)—a translation of Wormwood, A Drama of Paris by Marie Corelli (1855–1924), who was once described as Queen Victoria’s ‘favorite’ novelist—as a ‘philosophical’ novel and not as a thriller, contrary to the practice of most literary historians.

It is little known that between 1890 and 1920, two of the most read and admired novelists in Urdu were George W. M. Reynolds and Marie Corelli thanks to the translations of their novels—over thirty in the case of the former and nearly a dozen in the case of the latter. A few of Reynolds’ novels were translated more than once, and some ran to more than a thousand pages. Among their translators were such notables as Mirza Ruswa, Zafar Ali Khan, and Tirath Ram Firozepuri, and their avowed admirers included Premchand and Manto. The popularity and range of these and other translations can be best traced now only with the help of old catalogs.

Similarly, it is a sad fact that despite incessant claims of Urdu being a language common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike—a claim that actually makes no sense, since all major languages of India are common to all religious groups—histories of Urdu literature have constantly failed to give full consideration to the writings that are of greater social and intellectual relevance to non-Muslim speakers of Urdu. No history of Urdu novel to my knowledge, for example, mentions Shiv Barat Lal Verman (1861–1939), whose copious output I became aware of only through the same catalog. It listed 23 novels by him, all described as ‘philosophical.’ On further research I discovered that he had published perhaps a dozen more novels and a total of over three hundred books, most of which went through more than two printings during his life. His influence on later ‘literary’ novelists could be negligible but his importance in the intellectual life of a large portion of Urdu speakers cannot be denied. The same can be said with regard to Mahashai Sudarshan, another fiction writer of the same period whose popularity at one time matched that of Premchand, and whose works can be discovered again with the help of these catalogs.

Then there is a more mundane concern regarding Urdu printed books. While the earliest publications invariably mentioned the year of publication, the practice, inexplicably, slowly disappeared. Particularly in the case of popular fiction and poetry. Here again, old catalogs—they seem to have been always carefully dated— come handy, and make it possible for us to make reasonable approximations. Likewise, a comparison of prices listed in two catalogs separated by, say, ten years should be helpful too. Popular books tend to get pricier, while those not selling well remain at the same price or are discounted. And a reprint is almost always more costly than the earlier edition.

Finally, in the contemporary educational system in India schools provide instruction in Urdu language while colleges and universities teach Urdu literature. There is, however, no institution in either India or Pakistan where instruction or research is pursued in what could be called ‘Urdu Studies’—i.e. a ‘holistic’ study of all those many movements, publications, trends and conventions that, over the past two hundred years, played major roles in fashioning the intellectual life of Urdu speakers and effecting their private and public behavior. It is a major lacuna, but whenever in the future an attempt is made to produce an intellectual history of Urdu speakers, Muslims and Non-Muslims, these old book catalogs will be an invaluable source of information.


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)

Sherlock Holmes, the most widely known detective in the world, is perhaps also the most widely recognized fictional character in the world—at par with Hamlet, who appeared amongst us four hundred years ago. Holmes, however, made his debut more recently, in 1887, in a novella titled A Study in Scarlet. The author was a twenty-eight years old doctor named Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, not terribly successful in his medical practice and needing supplementary income after his marriage two years earlier. The story, sad to say, brought him only twenty-five pounds. His second book with Holmes—The Sign of the Four—was a similar financial disappointment. But when, in 1891, he changed genres and set afoot “the game” in six taut tales—they appeared in the newly founded but instantly popular magazine Strand—Doyle gained the success he wished for.


By 1891, English popular literature was easily available to many Indians in urban centers, through pubic libraries and franchised bookstalls at major railway stations. Also by then much popular English fiction, by authors such as George W.M. Reynolds, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and H. Rider Haggard, was not only being avidly read but also translated into Urdu in some fashion. For example, Reynolds’ Wegner, the Wehrwolf was translated by Muhammad Ameer Hasan as Fasana-e ‘Ala’uddin va Laila, and serialized in the Avadh Akhbar around 1890; and in 1896, translations of five of his novels were available from the journal’s publishers, the preeminent Newal Kishore Press of Lucknow.


Doyle’s tales must have been read by many contemporary Urdu speakers, but with no apparent impact. While tracing the development of mystery fiction in Urdu I was not able to find any evidence of Doyle’s popularity at the turn of the century. The reason, most likely, was the dominant literary taste. Urdu speakers, fond of dastans and similar tales of adventure, preferred even in translations from the English what we now call “thrillers,” as opposed to the tales of “detection” that Doyle excelled at. At the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, the other big name in crime-fiction was Maurice Leblanc, whose gentleman-burglar, Arsène Lupin, rivaled Holmes in popularity. It is telling that Lupin was the first to be made available in Urdu, through Tirath Ram Firozepuri’s translations and Zafar Omar’s “transcreations,” beginning in 1916. He also remained dominantly popular, even influential, for a couple of decades. Holmes made his appearance only a few years later, but though he found due popularity he never gained an Urdu imitator. That preference for “thrillers” still persists. Of the more than 200 original novels that have made Ibne Safi a household name, most are thrillers and not tales of detection.


To my knowledge, the first person to translate a Holmes story into Urdu was Shaikh Firozuddin Murad, a professor of Physics at the Aligarh Muslim University. A translation of A Study in Scarlet, it was titled Sharlak Homz ka Pahla Karnama, and was published at Lahore by the Dar-al-Isha’at Punjab, a prominent publisher of popular fiction at the time. Notably, the book was published with Doyle’s permission, as we learn from Murad’s preface. Murad also explains why he found the book so appealing: “This tale is not made of elaborate speeches and trite subjects. Instead, a chain of events is superbly narrated to make evident to us how an intelligent man, employing needful observation and a correct line of reasoning, can accomplish anything.” In other words, Murad liked the story not because it was sensational or thrilling but because it engaged his mind. Interestingly, when the same was translated a second time, by Amar Nath Muhsin and titled Khunnaba-e ‘Ishq (“The Bloody Torrent of Love”) the publisher still described it on the title page as “a novel that stands victorious in the field of detection, aided by the sciences of Physiognomy, Anatomy, and Chemistry.”


Murad published two more books of Holmes stories: Hikayat-e Sharlak Homz (1921) and Yadgar-e Sharlak Homz (n.d.). The first has twelve stories selected from the canonical four collections, the second seven. Murad thus managed to translate and publish one-third of the canonical 56 stories before he stopped. In the preface to the Hikayat, Murad described the stories as both interesting and instructive. “In the guise of a tale,” he wrote, “they teach us how to use our eyes correctly, draw conclusions from what we observe, and then develop a scientific line of reasoning. … Such stories can serve a useful purpose in Urdu.”

Expanding on his belief in the pedagogic quality of the stories, Murad did something unusual in the Hikayat: each translated narrative was presented as if it came in three sections. “The first section,” Murad wrote, “presents the mysterious affair at hand, the second offers a detailed account of Holmes’s investigation, and the final third section reveals the mystery and its solution. The reader’s enjoyment should lie in his stopping at the end of the first section and try to come up with an explanation of his own. Failing in the attempt, he should then read the second section, close the book, and then endeavor to imagine what Holmes would do next.” That was a noteworthy insight into Doyle’s narrative structures.

Murad also did something in two stories that Doyle might have strongly disapproved. In his translations of “The Adventure of the Three Students” and “The Adventure of the Reigate Squire”—in Urdu Tin Talib’ilm and Rai Ghat ke Ra’is, respectively—Murad made all secondary characters Indians. The locale in the first story remained Cambridge, but the three students and their harried teachers were given Indian names; in the second, even the locale was made Indian. Both give little added pleasure, and Murad did well not to tinker with the rest of the stories. In the Hikayat, he also included some crude litho illustrations based on the etchings in Strand. Both failures, nevertheless, indicate the earnestness and devotion that this professor of Physics brought to his labor of love.

Curiously, a decade later another professor of Physics similarly fell in love with Holmes. Naseer Ahmad Usmani, who taught at the Osmania University at Hyderabad, translated The Hound of the Baskervilles as Khandani Aseb, and The Valley of Fear as Wadi-e Khauf. Usmani too was an earnest but clumsy translator; he was also seemingly much influenced by the Bureau of Translation at his university—he used Mufattish for “detective”, Shaikh-al-balad for “mayor”, and Nishan-e Abi for “watermark”!

The two professors probably could not have gained Holmes many fans. Things changed only when that extraordinary translator, Tirath Ram Firozepuri, took up the task. After firmly establishing Lupin’s popularity among the readers of crime fiction in Urdu, he turned his attention to Lupin’s archrival—probably around the same time as Usmani—and in quick succession produced extremely readable versions of The Valley of Fear (as Wadi-e Khauf), The Hound of the Baskervilles (as Atishi Kutta) and The Return of Sherlock Holmes (as Karnamajat-e Sharlak Homz). His translations made the name well known in Urdu, but his numberless readers always showed greater appreciation for, and demanded more of, Lupin’s adventures and other similar thrillers Firozepuri had offered earlier and continued to offer till his death in 1954.

It’s about time someone again took up the challenge and completed in Urdu the work started by these pioneers. Urdu speakers never cease to claim greatness for their language. But surely no language can be considered great unless it has available in it most of the revered “Holmesian” canon of 56 stories and 4 novels? The effort may even enhance logical thinking among Urdu speakers, and prove Murad right.



Originally appeared in Dawn, June 2, 2015.


07. May 2016 · Comments Off on The Nonpareil Translator: Munshi Tirath Ram Firozepuri · Categories: Archive, Urdu Language and Literature · Tags: , , , ,

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.