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The tragic story of Urdu

By Raza Rumi

What makes translating Urdu literature a rare indulgence has also kept it closeted from global appreciation.

Ralph Russell, the legendary British scholar of Urdu literature, whose tireless efforts to explore the Byzantine layers of Urdu will always serve as a reference point for global Urdu-walas, once summed up the eternal dilemma of achieving a perfect translation of Urdu literature into English. He pointed out that the work of Indian and Pakistani translators suffered from a lack of command in either language. “The English-knowing products of what in India and Pakistan are generally called ‘convent schools’ have acquired their nearly (but not quite) perfect English at the cost of losing full command of their mother tongue,” he wrote in 1996.

This is not to say that translations of Urdu literature have not been accomplished. In fact, there are many 20th century writers whose works have been translated by competent men and women. Key examples are the translations of the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai. Their poignant and non-conformist writings have found a wide readership in predominantly English-reading Indian middle classes and western readers attempting to understand the nuances of South Asia’s literary output. The contribution of The Annual of Urdu Studies – edited by Muhammad Umar Memon and published every year from the US – has been immense in this regard. Some writers and poets whose works have been translated include Abdullah Hussein, Patras Bukhari, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ghulam Abbas, Hajra Masroor, Premchand, Qudratullah Shahab, Intizar whose contribution and devotion to the translation of Urdu literature remains unparalleled and who has provided fine examples of literary translations, leaving out no major contemporary Urdu writer. His academic journal, The Annual of Urdu Studies, continues to publish translated works from Urdu every year.

Literary magazines are a great introduction to young and fresh voices in Urdu. One can observe a constant process of experimentation in language and expression. Short story writer Ali Akbar Natiq, one of Urdu’s most important new voices, and Mohammad Khalid Toor, who is critical newly- rediscovered voice, have been introduced to readers by Urdu literary magazines. […]

Karachi Literary Festival: Spring in the land of suicide bombers and charlatans

Who says Pakistani literature was a relic of the past? If anything, Pakistani authors have a global audience today, and our writers are now the greatest harbingers of Pakistan’s complexity and nuance in a way that the embedded media can scarcely fathom.

The first literary festival took off in our cosmopolitan melting pot, Karachi, in March. The Oxford University Press’ dynamic head Ameena Saiyid, and the British Council, together organised this event. Asif Farrukhi, the premier litterateur of the metropolis was central to the festival. Farrukhi’s comprehensive command of Urdu and English literary currents, and the stature which he has earned with his hard work, ensured that we were all set for a fabulous gala.

Earlier, the festival faced the usual hurdles: the Indians were issued visas rather late in the day and my friend Sadia Dehlvi was denied a visa at the last minute, despite earnest efforts by the organisers. The iron curtain was rigidly in place. But the other regional and international delegates arrived as planned. The last minute finalisation of the schedule meant that due notice could not be given to many participants. However, the OUP team, especially Raheela Baqai, were adept at getting things done. Saiyid herself used Facebook to advertise the event. She’s obviously keeping up with technology and its changing frontiers.

We arrived just in time for the launch ceremony that was held at the British Consulate. It was quite a journey from the Carlton Hotel to old-world Clifton – a mini-bus that dazzled with literary icons of our time: Iftikhar Arif, Intezar Hussain, Masood Ash’ar and Shamsur Rehman Farooqi from the world of Urdu. The front seats were occupied by the petite and resplendent Bapsi Sidhwa, the contemplative Zulfiqar Ghose and the younger British Pakistani writer Sarfaraz Manzoor, whose book ‘Greetings From Bury Park’ has created waves across the English reading […]

Wandering between two worlds – Karachi Literary festival

Ghazi Salahuddin’s write up for the NEWS makes interesting points about the festival and also mentions me as one lost between the English and Urdu worlds

Far from the unruly crowds we watch on our news channels, playing hide and seek with an equally enraged and rowdy police, a select group of book lovers was able to retreat, during the last weekend, to the wonderland of literature. This, of course, was the Karachi Literature Festival sponsored by the Oxford University Press and the British Council. And all of us who were there were grateful for a memorable experience.

The two-day festival was held at a hotel tucked into a corner in Defence, by the side of the creek. It also bills itself as a resort. In that sense, being there did enforce a sense of distance from the disarray that pervades our daily existence. It was, thus, a lot of fun, and real pleasure was derived from casual encounters that flourished on the sidelines, with so many distinguished Pakistani writers and poets in attendance.

Now, when I underline this manifestly elitist aspect of the festival, I am not being critical of how it was designed. In fact, the location made the festival possible in spite of security concerns and the overall ambience greatly facilitated the discourse on otherwise rather sombre issues. Besides, the balance in the audience did tilt towards the readers of English and they could find easy access to the location. This is what would be expected of an event organised by the OUP and the British Council. […]

W.H. Auden’s poem – Partition

My friend IK has reminded me of W.H. Auden’s poem “Partition,” published in 1966. These moving verses  highlight the absurdity of the way the border was created sixty two years ago: 

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
“Time,” they had briefed him in London, “is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.” […]