07. May 2016 · Comments Off on Mir’s ‘Lunacy’ · Categories: This, That, & This Again, Urdu Language and Literature · Tags: , , , , ,

A new Pakistani film has just come out—Mah-i-Mir—invoking Mir’s name and his ‘lunacy.’ Some of its viewers may find interesting the following, included in my book Zikr-i Mir: The Autobiography of the Eighteenth Century Mughal Poet: Mir Muhammad Taqi ‘Mir’ (Oxford, India: 1999). It is, of course, quite prosaic, and in no way should be construed as a comment on the film written by Sarmad Sahbai, for whom I have nothing but respect. (Minor changes have been made in the text.)


‘We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.’ Wordsworth wrote those lines in 1802, eight years before Mir’s death, expressing the Romantic view of a cre­ative life’s trajectory. In Mir’s case, both despondency and madness came early in his youth. And though he was cured of the ‘madness’ soon enough, despondency seems to have hounded him all his life. Madness or junun, however, remained Mir’s favourite literary theme, and he explored it in his ghazals as no one has since.

There was a hereditary strain of emotional and/or mental imbalance in Mir’s paternal line, affecting at least some of its males. We learn from Zikr-e Mir (henceforward ZM) that Mir’s grandfather, after reaching the age of fifty, experienced ‘instability of disposition’ (mizaj az i’tidal munharif shud), and that Mir’s only uncle was born with some mental prob­lem (khalal-e dimagh), and died in his youth. Nothing is known about Mir’s only brother, Muhammad Razi, except for the brief men­tion in ZM. Mir gives no information about the exact number of his children, and mentions only one, Faiz Ali, in his writings. From other sources, however, we learn that late in his life Mir had one more son, Mir Hasan Askari Zar (a.k.a. Mir Kallu Arsh), from his second wife. Both sons are reported to have been rather strange in temperament, but neither is described as suf­fering from ‘insanity.’

Mir wore his ‘lunacy’ as a badge of honour, and has described it twice in some detail. Once in a masnavi entitled ‘Khvab-o-Khayal’ (‘Dream and Illusion’) written some time between 1752 and 1778, then again in ZM (ca. 1773). The following is a summary of the masnavi:

‘Blessed is he who doesn’t exist, for I know what existence brought me. Times kept me bewildered and distressed. I enjoyed not a day of peace in my hometown. People close to me turned into enemies the day I ‘raised my head.’ Friends and companions deserted me. Finally, with tearful eyes, I left home and somehow travelled from Akbarabad to Delhi. Here I suffered much hardship. And as I silently bore my burden I became mad. Sometimes I remained obsessed with some thought, other times I ran away from company. Still other times I foamed at the mouth and threw stones at people. My state continu­ously worsened. My madness reached up into the heavens: if I looked sky­ward and saw the moon I would become so terrified that I would faint. Eventually I began to see a lovely human shape in the moon, and I be­came obsessed with it. It remained in my sight no matter where I looked. Sometimes it would speak to me, other times it would be silently coquettish and playful. It would tease me and also comfort me. Sometimes it would lie down beside me, but when I would reach out to touch it there would be nothing. And in the morning it would hasten back to the moon. I turned pale and could hardly move from weakness. Someone brought an amulet to cure me; another sum­moned a spell-caster. Others brought physicians, who gave me potions that were against my natural disposition. My passion or madness in­creased. Then they started keeping me locked in a narrow room, and gave me little to eat or drink. One afternoon as I sat outside that dark cell they pounced upon me and had me cupped. I fainted, but next morning when I came to my senses, they started bleeding me again. This went on for a long time. I lost all strength. I fell into a stupor, and remained confined to my bed for many days. Gradually some strength began to return. I was able to open my eyes again, and that lovely figure returned to my sight. But now it would often stay away from me for hours. And when it would return, it would not look at me with that earlier feeling. Sometimes it would scold me, and accuse me of having been unfaithful to it. Other times, it would be­come disdainful and turn away from me. Then one day, it cast me a hopeless glance and returned to the moon, never to be seen again that vividly. For some time I could still see some shadow of its presence in the moon or catch a brief glimpse of it in some dream. Then that too stopped. It never appeared to my sight again, and that joyful in­timacy faded into a long lost dream.’

As against the above, where Mir’s torturers are many and name­less, the account in ZM puts the entire blame on Sirajuddin Ali Khan ‘Arzu’, who, Mir alleges, was instigated by Mir’s step-brother, Muhammad Hasan, out of sheer mal­ice. In the poem, the tragedy occurs not too long after Mir’s arrival in Delhi; in ZM, it happens after Mir has been with Arzu for some time and even studied a few books with him. Clearly, even by Mir’s own account, Arzu initially treated him decently enough—the alleged change occurred only after Muhammad Hasan’s letter arrived. So far no evidence other than Mir’s own words has been found to confirm the charge against Arzu.

The actual brief spell of emotional or mental imbalance cannot be de­nied. What is fascinating, however, is Mir’s obsession with the moon. He was literally ‘moonstruck’—a concept not too often in­voked in the Islamicate world, but not exactly unknown either. Mir himself tells a revealing story in Faiz-e Mir about some dervish named Shah Madan, who used to live in a graveyard. Mir says he once spent a day in his com­pany, then adds, ‘That night under moonlight his madness flared and he began to whirl and dance. By chance his foot hit a tomb­stone and broke. Before the night ended, he was dead.’ (However, there is no mah-zada or mah-zadagi in Persian, and mah-parast only means ‘a lover.’)

Mir states in ZM that his fascination with moon began quite early: ‘When I was a little child my nanny, as she would wash my face, would say to me, “[Look at the] Moon! [Look at the] Moon!” and I would look up in the sky—ever since that time I was fascinated by the moon.’ However, the significance of his remarks becomes dubious when we note that Mir has used here not only an obscure idiom from Arzu’s famous dictionary Charagh-e Hidayat, he has also expanded on it by using Arzu’s gloss. This is how Arzu explains the idiom, mah mah guftan: ‘It’s a common practice that when the mother or the nanny or some other person washes a child’s face and the child cries and remonstrates, that person points to the sky and says, “Moon. Moon.” It’s a subterfuge to divert the child and stop his cry­ing.’ Mir’s fascination perhaps also grew out of the pleasure he must have derived from the exceptionally beautiful moonlit nights of Agra that he mentions in another anecdote in Faiz-e Mir.

In both accounts Mir’s lunacy ends after he is cupped or bled at the insistence of his well-wishers, though the description in ZM has an additional detail: the doctors also ‘irrigate’ his brain [through internal medicine]. Both are recommended treatments in the Greco-Arabic sys­tem of medicine for melancholia, which is understood to result from an excess of heat in the body created in turn by an excess of black bile. After the cure Mir, in the prose version, gets on with his life and noth­ing more is mentioned of that experience. In the versified version, there remains a lingering sense of remorse and longing, as if the brief spell with the ‘moon-person’ was the happiest time of Mir’s life, and what came later only disappointed him.

Also, in both accounts, the sexual identity of the fantasy figure is not clear. Persian, of course, has no grammatical gender. But even in the Urdu poem, the gender is governed by the word used to refer to the figure— where surat is used, the verbal endings are feminine, but where naqsh is used, the endings are grammatically masculine. Hence my use of ‘it’ in the above summary. Further, the brief section describing the figure’s beauty contains no word that expli­citly suggests a particular sex.

As is plentifully evident in his poetry, Mir was obsessed with the theme of madness (junun), which in the tradition of Islamicate love poetry is the ultimate end of Passion (‘ishq), and the destiny—nay, the cherished goal—of all true lovers. The perfect lover in that tradition is Qais, the legendary lover of Laila, better known as Majnun (‘Affected by Madness’ or ‘Possessed by Jinns’). Mir returns again and again to the theme of junun and its ramifications—the tearing of garments, the running away from human habitations into some wilderness, the chains and fetters of asylums, and so forth. Madness, for him, becomes some­thing sublime—a transforming force, the battle-cry of a free spirit, a challenge to conformity and authority and all that is wrong and corrupt in the world. In Urdu at least, no one before Mir, and none after him, has explored this theme with such profound effect. Mir’s celebration of this sublime madness set the model for all later poets, from Ghalib to Iqbal and down to the Progressives. Nisar Ahmad Faruqi, on the basis of Mir’s too frequent use of ‘moon-related’ words—such as mahtab, mahtabi, chandni, qamar, etc—speculates in his Talash-e Mir that Mir’s spell of ‘lunacy’ could have been caused by his falling in love with a girl whose name meant ‘moon’ and thus bringing upon himself the grievous disapproba­tion of his family members. What is equally, if not more, significant is that Mir, to my knowledge, never used any ‘lunar’ imagery in the context of junun—as if to underscore the difference between what he felt was simply affective and what he must have regarded as supremely poetic.

19. July 2015 · Comments Off on Tarana, Naghma, Anthem—what’s in a name? · Categories: Archive, Students, This, That, & This Again, Urdu Language and Literature · Tags: , , ,
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 Scroll.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.


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.

Urdu speakers take much pride in their language. They particularly flaunt Urdu’s allegedly unique ability to put into resounding words whatever spasm of politesse grabs them at any time. It’s often edifying to see the results, particularly when the politesse is mixed comes packaged with an intense desire to be “religiously correct”.

Consider talking of death. Urdu has one perfectly good, all-purpose word: marnā (to die). We also have, for the purpose of being more specific in a certain “technical” sense, qatl honā (to be murdered) and halāk honā (to die a violent death of some other kind, say, in an epidemic or a train crash). We also have generally applicable euphemistic expressions, such as uTh jānā and guzar jānā (to be lifted from the world; to pass on). Then there are the more “formal” or “dignified” expressions for a general use, like wafāt pānā and intiqāl honā (to die). I may write, Pandit Nehru kā intiqāl 1949 men huā, or Qaid Azam ne 1950 men wafāt pāī, and in both cases my Urdu would be considered quite correct. I would, in fact, get an A for not using marnā with reference to the two statesmen. On facts alone would I be denounced, and rightly so.

Now consider the situations that the editors of some Urdu newspaper in Pakistan recently faced, and the decisions they made regarding the word “killed.”

In December 2014 there was a horrifying attack on the students of the Army Public School at Peshawar. The headline of the report in the Jang read:

In the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, 137 persons, including children, were killed (shahīd) and more than 245 injured.

The report then used the word shahīd (martyr) several times with reference to the victims, in general, and the children, in particular. I was not able to access the report in the Express, but one can be sure that it too did exactly the same.

A month later, there was an equally dastardly attack on a Shi’ah mosque in Shikarpur, in which 58 persons, including many children, lost their lives, and many more were injured. This is how the Jang headlined its report on January 30, 2015:

Fifty-eight persons, including children, who had come to offer Friday prayers were killed (jān ba-haq) when an explosion occurred inside the Imambargah at Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur.

Jān ba-haq is an abbreviation of the euphemistic expression jān ba-haq taslīm karnā, i.e. “to submit one’s life to God.” The report used that expression throughout. In this case, I was able to check the report in the Express—they too had done exactly the same.

On May 7, 2015, there was a tragic accident in Gilgit in which an army helicopter carrying various foreign diplomats crashed while landing. The Jang reported it with the headline:

Due to some technical problem, a Pakistani army helicopter crashed near Gilgit, and seven persons were killed (jān ba-haq).

However, as the report progressed, the paper used (jān ba-Haq) with reference to the ambassadors and their wives, and consistently used shahīd when it referred to the two Army pilots and one Army technician. The Express, in this case, consistently used the common expression halāk hona (to be killed) with reference to both groups. Two other papers that I looked into, Dunya and Nai Bat, followed the Jang’s example, and used jān ba-Haq with reference to the foreigners and shahīd concerning the Pakistani army personnel. Apparently, in the opinion of the Jang, Dunya, and Nai Bat, even the Muslim wives of the Ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were not considered fit to be designates as martyrs.

A few days later there was a horrible attack on a private bus in Karachi. The Jang reported it in this manner:

Terrorists forced their way into a bus of the Isma’ili community and blindly opened fire on innocent passengers, as a result 45 persons, including women, were killed (jān ba-Haq).

The same expression was used in the three other newspapers that I checked that day: Dunya, Express, and Nai Bat.

Earlier this year, on Sunday, March 15, two separate suicide bombers attacked two churches in Lahore. As a result 15 Christian worshippers died, while 79 were severely injured. Both the Jang and Express reported the tragedy in bold letters on their front pages, but both used the expression halāk honā to refer to the Christian victims of the attack. Mercifully, the suicide bombers, both Muslims, were not called either shahīd or jān ba-haq. In fact, they were not much mentioned at all.

Five years back, on May 28, 2010, Lahore witnessed another ghastly carnage, when two Ahmadi mosques were similarly attacked during the Friday congregational prayers. As a result 88 worshippers, including women and children, instantly lost their lives, and more than 200 worshippers were badly injured. Urdu newspapers rigorously referred to them as mahlukīn (the killed). And, of course, as required by law in Pakistan, they referred to the Ahmadi mosques as ahmadī ‘ibādatgāh.

The headline in the Express next day read:

Firing in Ahmadi Worship-places in Garhi Shahu and Model Town; Suicide bombings; 88 killed (halāk), 200 wounded.

In the body of the full report, the Express used the expressions halāk honā and marnā when referring to the victims, except near the very end when it said: “It is feared that the number of people killed (jān ba-haq) in this terrorist attack could exceed 100.” Earlier the report mentioned that one of the victims was Major General (retd.) Nasir Ahmad—a cousin of Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister—but both times used the verb marnā. The report in the next day’s paper used marnā and halāk honā exclusively. I was not able to access the issues of the Jang—their Internet archive does not go that far back—but I am confident that they did exactly the same, and used only the expressions marnā and halāk honā with reference to the Ahmadi victims of a well-coordinated attack by “mainline” Muslim fanatics.

So, what do we learn from this little exercise?

At least in these two Urdu newspapers, the attackers are always only dahshatgard (terrorists). They either blow themselves up to smithereens or are killed (māre gaye). Their religious/sectarian affiliations are not mentioned; they may, however, be identified as belonging to some organization, particularly if that organization immediate takes “credit” for the carnage.

As for the victims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims only die or get killed (marnā; halāk honā). Shi’ahs and Ismailis get to “submit their lives to the Truth” (jān ba-Haq), and foreign dignitaries—Muslim and non-Muslim, alike—may get that privilege too. Only the non-Ahmadi Army personnel and students at Army schools are unequivocally recognized as worthy of being designated as “martyrs” (shahīd).

Both the Jang and the Express have sister publications—The News and the Express Tribune, respectively— in English. In them, people “die” or get “killed”, but the news-writers remain respectfully silent about the deceased person’s relationship with his Maker.

Verbal religious finesse has not yet reached such dubious heights in the Urdu press in India, but the potential is very much there. I well recall the time, decades ago, when Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi raised a ruckus in his popular and influential weekly, Sidq-e Jadīd (Lucknow), over someone’s use of the word marhūm with reference to either Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri. The word is commonly used in Urdu the way the expression, “the late….” is used in English, its more literal meaning being, “One who has received God’s Mercy.” The Maulana insisted that it was not correct to use marhūm with reference to non-Muslims, and that instead everyone should use ān-jahānī (Belonging to the Other World). As I remember, the Maulana very much prevailed over the few who had opposed his assertion. Even now one hardly ever sees marhūm after a non-Muslim name in Indian Urdu newspapers. It is always ān-jahānī, placed before or after the deceased’s name. Incidentally, if memory still serves me right, the old Arya Samajist Urdu journals, used marhūm with Muslim names, granting them the mercy of Allah, and svargīya or svargbāshī (Residing in Paradise) with Hindu names. What they did with Christian and Sikh names escapes my memory.


*Published in Scroll.in on June 27, 2015.