The “Magic-making” Mr. Reynolds

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


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

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

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

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


IMG_4035_2            IMG_1823          IMG_1804

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Islamophobia and Blasphemy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

English/Urdu Bipolarity Syndrome in Pakistan


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



An Urdu version of the above is available at Tanqeed.

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.
Continue reading “Two Verses of Ghalib”

Raja Rao to C. M. Naim: 12 Letters


Raja Rao to C. M. Naim: 12 Letters




I was a graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley when Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope came out in 1960. I had not heard of the author before and came upon the book only because in those days there was a lovely reading room in Dwinelle Hall where one could read literary magazines, listen to recorded music, plays and poetry, glance through the latest acquisitions in poetry and fiction, or simply doze off in one of the old-fashioned lounge chairs. No one bothered you. The room was large and quiet, and people still believed in allowing quiet private spaces to others in shared public places. It was one of my favorite haunts, for I could go there and try to catch up on all that I had missed out on in Lucknow. It was there one afternoon that I found Rao’s novel among the week’s highlighted new acquisitions.


As I flipped its pages, its language fascinated me. A month later I was able to borrow the book to read at home at leisure. I soon discovered that I enjoyed the language much more if I read it aloud to myself. The sentences moved forward but often also seemed to curl back on them. Not only the narrative but its narration too invited you into experiencing a kind of circularity that was challenging, often exasperating, but, at that time in my life, also charming and fascinating. I don’t think I would be able to read the book now for more than ten pages, but it came into younger hands then, and also at a time when I was as heartbroken in an impossible love as the novel’s protagonist. Also, like him, I was quite arrogant in my own certainties.


A few years later, in Chicago, some friends and I started a magazine that we called Mahfil—it eventually gained more fame as the Journal of South Asian Literature. Our first issue was almost exclusively on Urdu, the second on Hindi, and the third on Indian writings in English. I wanted to highlight in it the two writers I then most admired, G. V. Desani and Raja Rao, and so arranged to include short excerpts from Desani’s classic All About H. Hatterr and Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope. It entailed correspondence with the two. Some of it survived my many moves, including one to India in 1971 for more than fourteen months. Among the survivors are the following letters from Raja Rao.


I have no record and almost no memory of what I wrote to him. I’m sure I had little idea of his age and achievements when I wrote him first. I do recall inviting him later to Chicago a couple of times to give seminars—“readings” were not in fashion then—and also had him interviewed on radio by Studs Terkel. (There must be a tape of it in Terkel’s archive somewhere.) But Raja Rao never became a great hit with my colleagues at the University of Chicago. Most of them felt no desire to concede to him the status he most cherished, that of a scholar-philosopher. They viewed him merely as a novelist with certain thematic predilections. In a sense, the artist had moved on, whereas most academics only saw him as the author of an astonishing debut novel, Kanthapura (1938). Also, he was perhaps too “Continental” for the English and “Comp Lit” crowd at Chicago. He eventually found his niche—in Philosophy—at the University of Texas, Austin, where Desani had preceded him. They taught in alternate semesters, and had their devoted followings for many years. Zulfikar Ghose also taught there, but in the department of English (or perhaps Comparative Literature). But I doubt very much if the three South Asian masters of fiction writing ever appeared together on the same platform—or in the same drawing room.


Looking back after so many years I can confidently say that it was an enriching and joyful experience knowing him even so cursorily.


C. M. Naim

Chicago, March 2013


In transcribing the letters I have retained any word that Raja Rao crossed out, but marked it as such. Where he added comments on the margin, I have inserted them in the text, placing them between asterisks. Raja Rao wrote a minuscule scrawl, hard to decipher now in every instance. My guesses, in such cases, are followed by a question mark within brackets.






40 Acres Club,

Austin, Texas

May 1, [1964]


Dear Naim Sahib,


I wish I could have written to you in Urdu. You know I am an old student of Madrassa-i-Aliya in Hyderabad, and Aligarh University (and Nizam College) – so once my Urdu was not bad. Even now I enjoy listening to Urdu – it seems to have such elegance and such maturity. While in Lucknow (which I know well) I used to go to Josh Malihabadi, and hear him sing away his verses (actually one of the women sang Josh’s verses) and it was such a festival of poetry. I wonder whether in modern India today such “careless rapture” is possible. I hope it is.


While in India this time I did not have sufficient time in Delhi or Hyderabad to go to a mushaira – and those organised by the All India Radio have neither the fragrance nor the lustre of the old mushaira atmosphere.


So, as you see, like my old friend Ahmed Ali (we were at college together – he is now in Pakisthan [sic]) I am a nostalgic person – not necessarily for what is old, but for the sensibility it created.


I shall soon be with you – on the 18th I arrive, and we will take up this talk. It is so easy to demolish the old – but one day even the new will become old. Ghalib must have said somewhere such a thing, I am sure. *For the very thought of Urdu makes me think in an Urdu thinking intellectual’s manner.*


My coming to Chicago is entirely of your making, so may I thank you for it sincerely, and believe me, sincerely yours,

Raja Rao




Saratoga Springs, N.Y.


June 14, [1964]


Dear Naim Sahib,


I was – I am – certainly very ungracious in not having written to you after all the kindness and hospitality you showed to me. The fact is my energy is inadequate to my needs, and as I am physically less strong, my work is also more demanding – in fact with increased maturity, one’s work becomes more and more precise, and thus one gives to one’s work the major portion of one’s strength. For sometime here I live in much noble solitude, and except for an appearance at dinner, one is left completely alone. And so little by little I catch up with my mail. And yours is among the first letters I am writing.


What was Chicago like to me? I wrote to Milton Singer to say (he had asked me to read one of his manuscripts and comment on it, which I at last did last week) – I said I was just beginning to know Chicago when I left. The day before I left was extremely rich in meetings, and about everybody I met, I should have met seen several times. Also I was overwhelmed by certain perspectives on Chicago which seemed authentically (?) deeply satisfactory, and completely unexpected. Perhaps I will one day come back to Chicago – who knows? I never know what calls me where and when? (sic) For life is such a series of gifts. I did not know even six months ago that I was going to come to Chicago. Nor for that matter to Yaddo.


I will probably go towards the middle of July to California, and will perhaps drop in at Philadelphia for a day or two. Please drop me a line at the above address giving me your address whereabouts in Philadelphia.[1] I would like you to know some of my friends there.


Your “short story” I read with very eager interest. I think that you have a very good story, and it seems to me that the story has to be much reduced in size. The idea is poetic but the treatment is too straightforward. It needs bypasses (?) and complexities of approach in language and structure so that the theme is discovered in the conclusion – your beautiful conclusion. If we could have read it together I would have told you more explicitly. A short story is a poem, in many ways, and so it needs a bare statement of fact to overwhelm the reader. There is a similar story by Liam O’Flaherty (I do not know if you know it. It’s also about a donkey about to die and of birds wanting (?) to finish up the animal before life has left it.) I think even O’Flaherty is too old fashioned. The short story today is a highly sophisticated form, and if I were you I would go on to the novel. After the novel the short story seems more pure in spirit easy of understanding. This is only a friendly suggestion. After all each writer has his own pattern of work. And work indeed is purely personal. And usually no writer is right about another writer’s work.[2] However since you had the kindness to show your short story I thought I would say what I felt. I would like to see more, if you have any you could spare.


With affectionate regards,

yours very sincerely

Raja Rao



Do you think I should write a formal letter to Marc Galanter? I shall in a day or two. Give him my regards, please.[3]


(Inflight Pan Am Clipper. Airline envelope.

c/o A E Jolis, 589 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.)

Between Paris and New York


January 15, [1965]


My dear Naim Sahib,


Forgive me, will you, for this mad silence where everything seems to move but no one knows where. I have been working as I have rarely worked before (that is the work I did in New York) and then I rushed off to my friend’s (?) flat on the Mediterranean, at Grasse, to work on my new book. In the vitality of air and beauty that shines on Grasse, I lived and worked successfully, and partly recovered my failing health. I am returning to New York for the publication of my new book (Jan 18) and after a week there I will go to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a four month visiting Professorship. I have of course Chicago on my programme (sometime towards the end of May perhaps) so that I could see you and Ramanujan, and Mircea Eliade. I got to know Chicago and began to love it.


Did you get a copy of my new book? I think I put your name down for copies to be sent to. If you haven’t received it let me know.


How is your work going on, and your own writing [?] In all frankness I must admit I have been so busy I have had no time to go through your story. But I hope to in Baton Rouge.


Is there anything I can do for you[?]


I saw Ali Yavar Jung in Paris; he is going to Aligarh. He wants to bring in many important changes in the way the university is run.[4] I hope you will go back to it one day.


After Baton Rouge, I return (after having seen you) to New York and then to Paris. I may go to Africa (French-speaking) briefly, and in September I return to India for a year of hard work.


How beautiful, Naim Sahib, life can be  – in the miracle of emergent circumstance – of devoted friendships, of intellectual penetrations to the world of poetical suchness. Is it intellectual? No, it’s just the play of truth discovering itself in terms of a seeming otherness. Life is meant for happiness.


Is there anything I can do for you [?} Just take me for an older brother and let me know.


Yours affectionately,

Raja Rao



(Written on an aerogramme that apparently got torn, and so was mailed in an envelope)

c/o A. E. Jolis

589 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY


June 8, [1965]


My dear Bhai Saheb,


I am so unhappy I could not make Chicago. I will tell you one day the good, the auspicious reasons, why I had to skip Chicago. I know you will forgive me, and so will our friends.


I am here till the end of this month, and if you come to New York let me know, and give our friends in Chicago (Ramanujan, Mircea Eliade, etc.) my address here, so that if they come here they could contact me. My whole programme is somewhat uncertain – India in a few months is certain, so is Europe next month. And what are your plans?

Your affection will forgive me.

Yours always affectionately,

Raja Rao



(The following came in response to what I had arrogantly written after reading The Cat and Shakespeare (1965). Sadly, the letter somehow got torn into two, and now I find that one of the pieces is missing.)


Dear Bhai Sahib,


I was moved by the fact that you understood indeed the trick (that I played – in The Cat and Shakespeare) and I am grateful to you for it. *And I realise why you do not want to read the book again.* Yes, those who have only seen in the book the side of high comedy or of metaphysical exaltation have missed the fact that to apply the Mother-cat and kitten philosophy  to one’s own life is to lose one’s life – yet, to gain all! For what is life worth if you cannot gain it all!

Yes, do send me the Sillapadikaram and I will do my own sort of review, as long as you…. [5]

Yours always,

Raja Rao

P.S. I will be going to Texas University from April 18th to May 5, for a series of lectures. I will be at the old address: 40 Acres Club, Austin, Texas.


(Mailed on 20 September 1965)

Palais Provencal

Grasse. A.m. France


Dear Bhai Sahib,


Forgive me, I have taken all this time to reply to your affectionate letter. The fact is when I work I find letter writing somewhat difficult.  So I will be brief but there is such warmth in me for you, and such devotion, I hope we will one day be long enough together to discover this common link. You call me a brother, and I feel a brother.


I must also tell you I have been settling down to the prospect of married life. Katherine is an American (from Texas), an actress by profession, deeply serious, young and intellectual. You will probably meet her in Paris – that is if our dates coincide.


I reach Paris on October 8th or 10th. I cannot find your letter, and that is why I do not know when you propose being in Paris. If I am there I would of course look after you, but I suggest in any case that you contact Mr. Hashmi (HASHMI) who is also from Aligarh, and who is first secretary. *(Indian Embassy’s address in Paris.)* I do not know him that well but I am told he is interested in literature. And he seemed to me to be a man of infinite charm and of intellectual curiosity. I shall write to him today, and will speak to him of you. If you need accommodation, of this too will you write to him. Thank you.


Mahfil came the other day, and I and Katherine were most impressed with the review of The Cat and Shakespeare.[6] What a remarkably intelligent statement (?) it is – though not entirely accurate, but always pushing forward to new propositions, and so of new meanings. I will probably write to the reviewer one day.


Meanwhile what sorrow fills our hearts, yours and mine, at this plight of India and Pakisthan (sic). Must one be so stupid (both of them), and be so reckless about dear human life. How I wish intellectuals could do something – yes, they can – but it will bear fruit in a century.


I hope I will not miss you in Paris, but if I do we will meet in Chicago next year.


Be well in Aligarh, and write to me at the above address – letters will always be forwarded.


yours always affectionately,

Raja Rao


P.S. Rajeshwar Dayal, present Ambassador to Paris, was the Collector of Barabanki – and that is how I know Barabanki![7]



(An aerogramme, divided into five sections.)

1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas


November 6, [1966]


My dear Bhai Sahib,


I have been waiting for the summer to be over and for the autumn to set in to write and inquire from you whether you have returned from India, when a colleague of yours (in the Dept. of Anthropology) who was here a few weeks ago told me that indeed you had returned, and I was indeed most happy to know that once again you are not very far from me. I had, if you remember, promised to visit you in Aligarh when I was in India last year but the Indian train accommodations are so difficult to get that though my train did pass from Delhi to Bombay via Aligarh I did not get down to see you (and Ali Yavar Jung, who also I had promised to see).[8] I was just afraid that I would have to wait ten days to get a decent seat on the train again. (Because of my illness I have to travel with  conditioned imp…..(?)) I wish I could have come to see you and also meet some old friends, and again see the university after almost thirty-five years. I do hope you had an (sic) useful year, and that you found your family not too uncomfortable in these very trying days in India.


I went from Bombay to Calcutta, and from Calcutta to Bombay and Kerala (for the All India Writers Conference), and thus I saw a good bit of India. I was saddened by the general demoralisation among the people, and in some areas I found a healthier spirit than the year before. I was hoping to go to India again this coming year but it looks as if I cannot manage it as I have to finalise the text of my book on the Ganges, which is almost finished (at least one volume, for there will be three or four volumes in all, perhaps, and this may come out sometime next year. I have been very ill again with asthma (since three four months) and so my work has been very slow.


I want to know how you are, and how it feels to be back in Chicago. Is your magazine continuing? It is a fine publication, and I hope it prospers. Is Ramanujan there? If so give him my warm regards. I hope someday I will return to Chicago to meet you and a few friends. Is there any hope of your coming southward to Texas? Can I do anything for you at all?


You probably know that I am not only married but have a son (six months old), and I find enchantment in the discovery of this young creature face to face with the world (this world of doors and chairs and toys and trees). How much one can learn from the learning of children, and I have been wondering why so few novelists have ever written about children. The child is such a reminder of wisdom, and of simplicity. Let us learn them from them.


I send you my very deep affection,

Raja Rao







(An aerogramme, divided into five sections.)


1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

Jan. 25, 1967


My dear Bhai Sahib,


Forgive me – this silence has been improper. But I wanted to write to you an adequate letter.


Your letter brought tears into my eyes, and I shuddered at the thought of all that you must have gone through. It is difficult to understand human nature often. It seems to contradict the very basis of what is human. The wars, the massacres, the disloyalties, the subterfuges of modern living, all seem so strangely inhuman that one wonders how we can continue to live. After the massacre of nearly eight million Jews by Hitler, the Western world continues to live as if nothing had happened. After the Hindu-Muslim massacres the Indians and the Pakistanis live as if it was all a history-book affair.


So it is with individual stories. In spite of my 57 years, I still feel a child face to face with the “normal” human situation. Yet, what has enriched, ennobled me is the (?) of friendship, the sacrifice that man will make for man. People, this world, has been most kind to me – yet suffering there has been, and so much of it.


Suffering comes often from a simple misunderstanding, which ultimately becomes a symbol, and then divides.


If I want to come to Chicago it is mainly to see you, and Mircea Eliade, and Ramanujan. My plans however are still very vague because of my health (which is slowly improving), and because of my wife’s activities.  (She is an actress, and the program goes according to where and when she is acting.) But I want you to meet Katherine and my son.


Your colleague, Marc Galanter, did write to me, but he was as vague as I was. I want to know definitely if (a) the University of Chicago wants me, (b) and if so when. Your colleague’s letter does not speak of any honorarium and so I took it as being only a friendly sort of visit, and in America I find this not altogether proper. You know how I feel about money – how in America money is a serious matter. So if they want me I will come, but under my own conditions. Unless you advise me otherwise. In which case I will accept your suggestion. Otherwise I come only to see my friends. The university will have nothing to do with it. Could you explain to Galanter. I will also write to him.


Katherine and I are driving to New York, and it is too cold and full of snow to drive up North in March or early April. People tell us this. So maybe we will come to you in Autumn. Anyway, please write to me often, and tell me how life is with you and around you, and also if there is anything I can do for you. Please write to me without any reason.


With affectionate regards.

yours …

Raja Rao




1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

March 25, 1967


My dear Bhai Saheb,


So, Katherin and I, leave Austin on Sunday, April 2nd, and after an overnight stop at Dallas (where Katherine has her parents) we will leave for Chicago on Monday morning, and hope to reach there by Wednesday evening. (Roughly driving 350 miles a day.) Now, could you book us a room (a double bed or two single beds, it does not matter) with a private bathroom, and not very far from the campus. Perhaps the Windermere may still be the best, unless we could stay at the Faculty Club. Our needs are simple – only the private bathroom is all that we need, and in America that is not difficult to get.


Now, as to what we should do (apart from seeing you, and giving the talk that [Marc] Galanter asked me to give – this time unambiguously ) is to see a few persons. (1) [Edward C.] Dimock (to whom I have just written.) (2) Mircea Eliade (to whom I wrote sometime ago.) (3) [A. K.] Ramanujan. (4) Milton Singer (to whom I have not written but would be grateful if you could.) In case it is not too much of a trouble could you kindly contact them from us, and the man at the Radio Station. I forgot his name now – I was so impressed with him the last time I saw him – and any others whom you think I should see. May I leave the programming to you. *Also some interesting play or show connected with the theatre for Katherine. A very wide programme, as you see.*  And thank you for it all. We will probably leave on Saturday morning, unless there is something very important to do or to see, in which case we may be able to stay a few days more, but as it stands we will leave on Saturday.


My main purpose in coming, as I told you, is to see you. I feel you have not been too happy, and just to see one another may take away some edge of pain. At least I hope so. I hope I am right.


yours affectionately,

Raja Rao


Could you let us know here when you have reserved our room so that we could drive straight to the hotel (or wheresoever you have fixed for us to stay). Forgive the trouble. If I do not hear from you before we leave I shall telephone you on arrival.

Anyway, my telephone number: home GR7-1565, and you could always ring me collect. And please do if you feel like it. Thank you.




1808 Pearl Avenue

Austin, Texas

Dec. 8, 1969


My Dear Bhai Sahib,


In all honesty I must tell you since that day, some two and a half year ago, when I said au revoir to you in Chicago, I had promised myself to write to you, for there was a melancholy in your being, a sort of noble pessimism, a sense of craving Destiny, back to one’s Gods as it were, for sustenance and comfort – and I have sometimes been anguished at the loneliness it indicated. And to take two and a half years to write to you does not indicate that my own capacity to respond to your solitude was so very …. (?) However, believe me I have carried an envelope of yours through all my travels. For since I saw you last I have been to India twice, and then again to Africa, and my health being poor, I have had to fight against time and circumstance, and it is only since about a fortnight that my health is recovering from a terrible attack of asthma that I had on arriving in Africa last March. I see three doctors now, and I am getting better and better. But even last year my health was miserable. All this is an explanation for my silence, and not an apology. There is no apology for such sheer indelicacy, for such an idiotic negligence. Please forgive me.


Could you now tell me how you are? Do you still feel as sorrowful and solitary as I found you – not according to you perhaps, but certainly according to me. I do hope someday you will come to Austin to see me. I always feel the elder brother, if you will permit this indiscretion.


Katherine will return from India with …(?) after nearly two years in South India. She has India as her new home, and she has bought a piece of land to build a house there, in Kerala, on the river Pampa, near the Home of my Sat-Guru. What greater home has a disciple than the Home of his Guru, he who has shown the face of Truth, the Sat Guru.


I go on working on my book, and each time I seem to have finished my manuscript. I feel it needs even more work. What a noble task writing is – it asks for everything that one can give beyond oneself – and as …(?) this agony and this joy.


To you, therefore, dear Bhai Sahib, this brings my very affectionate regard.

Raja Rao


P.S. What are you working on now?

How do you …(?) cost your journal – it is a very fine journal indeed.

a. l. (?)

Please believe me this is not a Christmas letter.


Dec. 20: I once again delayed sending this to you because I was searching for your proper initials. It seems improper – unless otherwise urgent – to write to people without their full and properly formulated address.[9]


1808 Pearl Street

Austin, Texas

April 1, 1970


My dear Bhai Sahib,


I have been proposing (with my wife) to visit you, sometime early in May – that is if all goes well, and you are there, in Chicago. I did not write to you earlier for I have been busy with my own writing, and also because of my uncertain health. Anyway, my main purpose to go to New York via Chicago is to see you – and after that meet one or two friends like Mircea Eliade, and may be Milton Singer. Could you write to me at once, if possible, so that we could make our plans.


The need to see you somehow seems deep-seated. I want to be near you, and if possible to bring to you a brother’s warmth of presence (?) of awkward gesture.  So much of saying is largely immature. The Symbol seems so true, for the word, the naked word, is too concrete. The real is in dissolution – the Symbol the ritual of true meaning.


Yours affly,

Raja Rao


P.S. 1) We will be driving.

2) Have not had time to read your Ghalib.




The Guest House Motor Inn

Birmingham, Alabama

May 4, 1970


My dear Bhai Sahib,


Strange, you must think, I should write to you from here – I was invited to give a lecture … (?),[10] and I accepted it, hoping I may still be able to go to New York via Chicago. But I discovered that my conference in New York starts on the 11th (the P.E.N.) not on the 16th or 18th as I had imagine it to do, and as I have to give a brief talk I should be there on the opening day – which means once again I will miss you. But I shall try to make it on my way back, or late in August. Anyway, here is my address in New York, and I would like to hear from you.


c/o A. E. Jolis

589 Fifth Avenue

New York, NY


I am deeply sorry to miss seeing you now as I had hoped. But please write, will you. And give me news. With my warm greetings to your wife and children,


Yours affectionately,

Raja Rao


P.S. By the way Rajeshwar Dayal came to Austin last week, and we spoke of course of Barabanki.

By the way, again, I wonder if you have any way at all of helping poor Ahmed Ali to get out, even temporarily, of Pakisthan (sic). If you could, I should be so grateful.



P.S.S.  As you can see the letter was written in a hurry, so please forgive.



[1] I spent the summer of 1964 in Philadelphia, teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. As I remember, he was not able to make the stop.

[2] He was of course dead right about the story. Titled ‘The Outcasts,’ it is included in my collection of miscellaneous writings: Ambiguities of Heritage (Karachi, 1999).

[3] Prof. Marc Galanter of the University of Wisconsin, the distinguished author of Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India (1984) and other books, was at the time a young colleague at Chicago and had been the host of Raja Rao on behalf of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies of the University of Chicago. He was also an avid reader of Indian literature, and it was he who introduced me to G. V. Desani’s masterpiece. The book had been remaindered by the publisher, and he had bought four or five copies to share with friends. Together we wrote – anonymously – the short introductory note introducing the excerpt in Mahfil.

[4] Navab Ali Yavar Jung, a distinguished diplomat, had a troubled tenure at Aligarh as the Vice-Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. He was attacked and suffered bodily injuries at the hands of the students. I did go to Aligarh during that time, and in fact taught Linguistics for a couple of months in an honorary capacity at the request of my teacher, prof. A. A. Suroor.

[5] I’m not sure if we sent him the book. It was reviewed by someone else.

[6] The book was reviewed by Robert J. Ray of the Beloit College. He had earlier reviewed for us The Serpent and the Rope, and was actually quite enthusiastic about both.

[7] At our first meeting or perhaps in an earlier letter Raja Rao asked what my home town was in India, and learning that it was Barabanki he somewhat gleefully, and to my utter amazement, told me that he had been there.

[8] I am not sure if any train from Delhi to Bombay passes through Aligarh, unless he was going some place else before heading off to Bombay.

[9] He had some trouble with my initials, and the envelopes are variously addressed. I once pointed it out to him and he promptly apologized.

[10] The four words are indecipherable to me. The final, for example, could be ‘ on Mahatama’ or ‘on Malarme.’ Either would be correct in Raja Rao’s case.