Julien Columeau is a Frenchman, but he writes fiction in Urdu, despite knowing at least six languages including French, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and English. He says his own language, Provencal (Occitan), has become extinct as his grandfather was one of the last persons who spoke it.
“Learning new languages, may be, is due to my ‘languagelessness’. Provençal was our emotional language that I was not fluent in and French is a kind of national language which was never really ours so I felt ‘in-between’ and I belong to the last generation feeling this way,” he says about his own language.
“My language, Provençal, endangered when I was a kid is now dead. I learnt it to communicate with my grandfather and never wrote it again after he died. He was the last person I could speak Provencal with,” says Julien, adding he would not even call it his mother tongue because he spoke it only with his grandfather.
He says he is one of the last persons who can speak Provencal. “When you are the last speaker you don’t really know what to do with it. The last speaker of great Andamanese spoke her language with birds as the Andamanese believed that people got reincarnated into birds.”
“The language was very important a couple of centuries ago. Frédéric Mistral, the greatest poet of our language, got the Nobel Prize in the beginning of the last century and Dante thought about writing ‘la divina comedia’ in it. But then it got extinct due politics of nationalism as French ate it away through Jacobinism to ‘achieve national unity by erasing linguistic and cultural differences’.
My mother came to know that I write only last year. It doesn’t really matter to her perhaps because I write in a language she cannot read.
Julien writes Urdu novelettes and short stories. He has published Saaghar, a biographical novelette on enigmatic Urdu poet Saaghar Siddiqui, Miraji Kay Liay, another similar work on similarly enigmatic Urdu poet, Muneer Jafri Shaheed and Zahid so far. Another novelette, Pyaray Ustad is likely to be published soon.
He says he started writing in Provençal when he was in India as somehow the Provençal words were trapped in my subconscious as language is so linked with your subconscious.
When asked what made him write on Saaghar and Miraji, he said, “I need to feel the character and be intrigued by it. There were huge gaps in the life stories of Miraji and Saaghar that was commonly known. With Saaghar it was easy to find the gaps because he never let anybody know why he became a Malang and where his family was or who was his beloved.
“Can you believe that Saaghar kept roaming around the streets of Lahore for 25 years while his brother was living round the corner?” he asked. The character of his brother in the novelette really existed and Saaghar went to die at his place perhaps as a form of revenge. The character of girlfriend is also based on a real person, he said.
“I found it out after the book was published when an old man asked me ‘who told you about her?’ Saaghar’s brother, his beloved and Zahid (the hero of another novelette) are all real characters. Saaghar’s brother was mentioned by Yunus Adeeb.
When asked how much reality is there in his fiction, he said: “I think the divide between fictional and real character is as artificial as the prose/poetry divide. You select themes and topics from real world and create another world that’s fictional.”
About the research for his biographical fiction, he says he thought about Saaghar first time in 2005 and wrote the story on him in 2009, the same with Miraji.
To question of authenticity of characters in biographical fiction, Julien thinks that a writer has to stick to some rules (realism) but within the area defined by these rules he is completely free. It’s like classical poetry, it’s fine as long as it rhymes and as long as it sounds authentic.
Poetry takes control of Julien’s characters when action shifts to their mind and his fiction which appears more like a prose poem. “It’s because they (the characters) are poets. They think poetically (Miraji and Saaghar) that’s why it took me so long to write these pieces. I had to get rid of the non-poetic elements or recycle the mundane into poetic.
“Their thoughts could not be vulgar even when Saaghar thinks about getting a dirty needle into his veins or Miraji about ‘self pleasure’.”
When asked whether we have lost a poet to a fiction writer, Julien said: “I don’t believe in this divide. You can expect poetry from me but in the form of prose. I do believe I am still writing poetry, even if I switched to fiction/prose. I did write poetry in French, Urdu and Kashmiri and Provençal once.
Though well-versed in many languages, he says he is not crazy about any language. “I am not a big Urdu aficionado. I write in Urdu because my characters speak Urdu,” he says matter-of-factly. He writes first draft in French then translates them into Urdu. “I first wrote Saghaar in French but it did not sound right and it appeared as if I had translated it from Urdu so when I adapted it from French to Urdu I felt I was reverting to the real/natural language.”
However, he wants to continue with three languages, Punjabi, Urdu and French, saying it’s enough for him.
He says he writes first drafts in French not because it is his first language but he wants to write differently from other Urdu writers. “You censor yourself consciously or subconsciously in Urdu, especially if you write about sex, drugs, etc.”
“I don’t want to write my stuff having in mind the moral standards of the people who, at the end of the day, will read me.”
He says he did not learn Urdu, he read it. “I read Majeed Amjad, Enver Sajjad, Intizar Hussain and Hasan Askari...that’s what made me stick to the language.” He was doing a diploma course in Hindi in India when he shifted towards Urdu, left the course midway and started learning Urdu on the Internet.
Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2015