Reviewed by Asif Farrukhi

Mehr Farooqi has written one of the most interesting, provocative and engaging books on modern Urdu literature and literary criticism in recent years. Called Urdu Literary Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari, it is published by Palgrave Macmillan and follows previous titles in the series Literature and Cultures of the Islamic World, edited by Hamid Dabashi. Farooqi, who teaches South Asian Literature at the University of Virginia in the USA, and has previously edited the two-volume Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature, definitely the most comprehensive and wide-ranging selection of contemporary Urdu writing from India available in English translation.

The title Urdu Literary Culture is broad and it is the subtitle, “Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari”, which narrows down the focus on critic and writer Askari, who is not just the main theme but also the great attraction of the book. However, one wonders what “vernacular modernity” means. Farooqi explains it clearly at the very outset: “I was drawn to the idea of a book-length project on Askari because I felt the need to understand the evolution of Urdu’s modernity from a critical perspective within Urdu’s literary culture”, she writes in the preface and goes on to state that “the diversity of vernacular language literatures in the Indian subcontinent makes the issue of the postcolonial voice a complex one. Urdu was arguably one of the most important languages of politico-social and literary discourse in the years leading to Pakistan. Askari’s work and personal history provide a missing perspective, that is, the vernacular critic’s understanding of the complex situation of Indian literary culture, and the effect of Partition on this situation. His life was virtually cut into two by Partition.”

This last bit is somewhat worrying. Why this emphasis on the effects of Partition? Surely there was much more to Askari’s life and works than what can be ascribed to “the effects of Partition”. And if this is the real interest, then why single out Askari? The same argument can be made for Manto, that his life was “virtually cut into two by Partition”. Or Qurratulain Hyder, over whose life Partition cast a great, grey shadow which would not move away. More than Partition, this book effectively provides the perspective on Askari which had been missing, in all its complexities.

Askari was a seminal figure in modern Urdu literature and arguably the most important literary critic of his day. From the arch modernist and avid Westophile who swore by Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme and imbibed the influence of Joyce, he went on to espouse the cause of Pakistani adab, reading into it great cultural possibilities, almost a new renaissance, and later on, as if losing hope, he single-handedly diagnosed a condition of “stagnation” (jamood) and subsequently, of “death of literature,” turning a full circle to become an avowed disciple of the Islamic rivayat.

Bitterly attacked by many, most notably by the Progressives, and highly controversial, Askari remained relevant, and above all, illuminating in so many ways that hardly any other critic in Urdu can hold a candle to him. He continues to remain a challenging and enigmatic figure. Yet, one can hardly discuss contemporary Urdu literature without taking his life and work into consideration. And it is this challenge which Farooqi has taken up. She approaches the subject with an in-depth study of not only Askari’s writings but an awareness of postcolonial and literary theory which gives her an advantage over the few Urdu critics who have attempted to write about him, rather like blind men trying to look for an elephant in a dark room, each being content with the body part they can lay their hands on.

Askari was known to be a rather shy person who chose to make few friends. His private life has not been explored or written about in any substantive manner. But Farooqi attempts to fill that gap and under the title “As Many Branches as Many Trees,” she begins looking at his life from the days at the University of Allahabad. Because of her own associations with the city, she was able to access records and other details of his student days at the university, which he acknowledged as a great intellectual influence in his life. The general narrative is well-researched and well-presented, however, there are smaller details one can argue over, such as the speculation whether Askari was a pen name. Named after one of the imams, the full name was not un-common in both Shia as well Sunni families and there have been other literary figures with similar names. One such person was the writer and journalist Mirza Hassan Askari who began signing his Urdu writings as Ibne Saeed in order to avoid being mistaken for the other writer who had developed a formidable reputation by that time. Thus the very name remains part of the mystery Askari has become.

Some of that mystery is deepened by this book. Tracing Askari’s formative years, Farooqi describes his encounter with Firaq Gorakhpuri who taught English at the University of Allahabad and was a leading poet. Askari penned about half a dozen essays about him, with an unwavering admiration not in keeping with his reputation as a great iconoclast. Farooqi discusses the Askari-Firaq relationship at length as going beyond literature, and analyses Askari’s writings on Firaq as containing “a thinness of argument that stretches his critical narrative well beyond the point of breaking.” Farooqi studies and probes this “out-of-the-ordinary relationship” with “the possibility that there may have been an undercurrent homoerotic attraction or sensibility that drew Askari to Firaq.” While Firaq’s sexual orientation was well known, in my opinion it is more difficult to read Askari in this manner. His biographers have pointed out the fact that Askari never married but it is well-known that he could not marry the woman he wanted to. In fact, Farooqi also speculates on this un-named woman and she probably has the name wrong, according to what I have heard from my parents who knew Askari well. This part of the book might pose the greatest difficulty for Askari’s many admirers and is most likely to become controversial. It will be a great pity if the critical and analytical parts of this study are attacked or ignored for this aspect.

As a critic Farooqi is at her best when analysing the fiction Askari began his literary career with and the accumulated wealth of the Jhalkiyan articles he wrote monthly for the journal Saqi, covering cultural and socio-political issues of the day. By taking the Jhalkiyan articles into consideration along with the essays in the slim volumes Askari managed to publish in his lifetime, Farooqi has been able to fathom the span of Askari’s interests and his developing positions on cultural issues.

Among the many twists and turns in his career, none surprised his friends and foes more than his interest in Islamic studies and his complete volte face. It was during these days that I had the privilege and honour of meeting him. When I would ask him about Joyce and Proust, he would advise me to offer my prayers. But at the same time, he would also talk of Charlotte Bronte, D.H. Lawrence and Parveen Shakir.

Cultural discussions in Jhalkiyan often led towards socio-political opinions, especially in the early days of Pakistan, and it is the political aspects of Askari’s stance that I find to be the weakest and least defendable. His politics seem far more emotional to me than his critical pronouncements. This is one aspect which is not touched upon in this book but needs to be studied in more detail. His formidable work as a translator also does not get the attention it deserves.

But leaving these matters aside, few would disagree with Farooqi’s overall assessment that “Askari was Urdu’s first literary critic in the Western, practical sense of the term”. Farooqi has not only carried out the most systematic and through study of Askari’s work but in studying his evolving point of view, she has discussed the “climate of opinion” in the modern Urdu literary culture with a depth and insight not matched by any other book in recent days.

The reviewer is a fiction writer, critic and publisher

Urdu Literary Culture: Vernacular Modernity in the Writing of Muhammad Hasan Askari

(Literary Criticism)

By Mehr Afshan Farooqi

Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire

ISBN 9781137009029

256pp. $55

Updated Sep 16, 2012 02:55am

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