The “Magic-making” Mr. Reynolds

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

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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.

Sherlock Holmes in Urdu

 

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 Zafar Omar’s “transcreations” and Tirath Ram Firozepuri’s translations  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.

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An illustration in the story, “Tin Talib’ilm“. The original etching may be seen here.

 

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.

 

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Originally published in Dawn (Karachi) on May 24, 2015. Corrected for errors.