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The lives of others

By Raza Rumi

The first half of the 20th century witnessed a transformation in Urdu literature with the emergence of the short story as the choicest medium of literary expression, reflecting the shifting contours of Indian society. Urdu was not a communal language then. The Muslims and Hindus of pre-1947 India preferred the language for its subtlety, richness and aesthetic qualities. This was the age of Prem Chand’s realism, the romanticism of Rajinder Singh Bedi and Krishna Chandar, the irony and brutal directness of Ismat Chughtai and Manto and of course the prescient visions of Ghulam Abbas.


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Coffee House By Irfan Javed Sang-e-Meel Publication, Lahore, 2011 Price Rs. 400

The art of storytelling and creating ‘real’ characters was a huge shift from the idyllic, escapist and courtly expression of the 18th and 19th centuries. These new storytellers were children of Syed Ahmad Khan, Hali, Shibli and the modernists who modernized the Urdu idiom and brought it closer to the people and their evolving everyday dialect, now interpreted as Hindustani. The 20th century was also a time of ideological upheavals and movements inspired by the October 1917 revolution, leading to the creation of the first Communist state. Therefore, the realism of later writers like Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi was inspired by the literary debates on what literature ought to be doing and saying. This genre of short story gradually gave way to post-Partition traumas and the emergence of other styles that relied on symbolism and allegory, especially when Pakistan was pushed into martial rule in the 1950s. […]

July 29th, 2011|books, Published in The Friday Times, Urdu, Urdu Literature|1 Comment

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 […]

Jaipur, Faiz and Ali Sethi

Ali Sethi recently attended the Jaipur literary festival and his extraordinary performance is now accessible to those who were not there. I should thank him for sharing this video. Ali’s instructions were also meticulous but I will not post them here except his concluding comment: the whole of the rest of the session is fantastic, […]