Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies


Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies


The final issue of The Annual of Urdu Studies came out last week. When I got my subscription copy I put it aside after glancing through the table of contents. There was nothing that demanded immediate reading. But some hours later came an anguished email from an old friend: ‘Did you see the lead article in the current AUS by Tehsin Firaqi? I’m not qualified to judge many of the details (as far as I can tell, Fran’s choices were mostly justifiable), but it is written with incredible, hurtful animus, not only against Fran but also against any “non-native” who might dare to intrude upon the study of Urdu. What do you make of it? Why is the little world of Urdu studies so ungenerous?’

I had to stop what I was doing and read the article. It is titled: ‘The English Translation of Ab-e Hayat: A Review Article.’ Its author, Dr. Tehsin Firaqi, is a senior Pakistani scholar. After a distinguished career at the University of the Punjab he is currently the Director of the Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, an institution preeminent in publishing carefully prepared editions of Urdu’s canonical literary texts. I soon discovered that my friend’s anguish was not misplaced. It was not an academic essay but a nasty hatchet job. The author’s vehemently aggressive tone shocked me, for having met him twice and read a few of his writings I had always considered him a reasonable person. Equally shocking was the fact of its publication in the final issue of a cherished journal, thirteen years after the book came out. My friend was right: the article was a shrill tirade exclusively directed against Prof. Frances Pritchett, the principal author of the book under discussion, even though she had done both the editing and translation in association with Mr. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. And why does Firaqi so privilege her? Because she happens to be a ‘non-native.’

Firaqi begins with a bald statement: ‘Though the translation was made and edited “in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,” a distinguished Urdu critic, I tend to think that he played only a minor role in the enterprise….”[1] He then states his intention to substantiate that claim with examples that follow. However, he first gives two examples of what he considers to be perspicuous and superb translations, adding that similar passages are ‘liberally sprinkled’ throughout the book. He then makes another bald assertion: ‘These sections may indeed have benefited enormously from Faruqi’s extensive linguistic knowledge, his extraordinary translation skills, and his profound cultural insights. It is highly unlikely that Faruqi could in any way be responsible for some of the glaring errors found in other parts, where the translation lapses into sheer travesty and seriously damages its literary value.’

Now if that were indeed the case, and if that is all that bothers Firaqi, he should at least lay a charge of negligence, deliberate or otherwise, against Faruqi, the man with ‘extraordinary translation skill.’ Apparently, some days, he just didn’t do his job and let Pritchett get away with ‘travesty.’ Firaqi does not offer any explanation why an arguably reasonable person like Faruqi would be so callously irresponsible. He is more eager to make a third claim. ‘Pritchett cannot be expected,’ Firaqi declares, ‘to fully comprehend the cultural context of Urdu in a wider semantic perspective and to properly evaluate the linguistic complexities and stylistic innovations native to it. As a result, some specific Urdu cultural devices, linguistic niceties and idiomatic turns of phrase seem to evade her. Her reach is necessarily limited, while the arcane civilization of the Subcontinent and the essence of its poetic language are too lofty to be fully grasped by a non-native.’

In other words: every success goes to the credit of the ‘native,’ but all failures accrue to the ‘non-.’
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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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