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January 07, 2018


Looking westward has become such an ingrained mental habit for us that we tend to look in that direction even when it comes to matters related to Urdu. It is the Europe- and North America-based scholars we think of first when the international contours of Urdu scholarship are presented, or the nai bastian [new habitats] which many Urdu-wallahs are fond of proudly presenting to the world at large. Japan does not appear to be a likely candidate for inclusion in such a list, but the sheer breadth and quality of Urdu scholarship there deserves to be better known in Pakistan.

It took a visit to Japan for me to discover how Urdu studies feature in Japanese academia. The occasion was a trip to participate and present a paper at a conference entitled ‘Literary Intervention to Political Culture in South Asia’, organised by the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. The conference was intellectually stimulating, especially in the lively debate on the emergence of Dalit writing which is changing the face of Indian literature. The revelation for me was the teaching and research on Urdu carried out by faculty members Hagita Hiroshi and Komaki-Mamiya Kensaku, who have been involved in this effort for several years.

Kensaku’s area of interest is linguistics; he studied at the University of Sindh and wrote his dissertation on the linguistic relationship between Urdu and Sindhi. Senior academician Hiroshi is a well-known translator; he has translated Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi and Shaukat Siddiqui’s Khuda Ki Basti [God’s Own Land] into Japanese, as well as scores of short stories by contemporary writers. As we sat in his book-packed office sipping coffee, he pulled out a Japanese language book in which the only thing I could recognise was the familiar photograph of Intizar Husain; this was a volume of Husain’s selected short stories translated by him into Japanese. Hiroshi told me that he sees an affinity between Husain and Kobo Abe, the modern master of Japanese fiction.

A number of distinguished scholars from Pakistan have served in Japanese universities, including Abul Khair Kashfi, Sohail Ahmed Khan, Moinuddin Aqeel, Tabassum Kashmiri and Anwar Ahmed. Their current successor is Sohail Abbas, who showed me the interesting curriculum available in a digital version. I was able to interact with young students, including Yuri Kanou, a third-year student who was reading Sajjad Zaheer’s London Ki Aik Raat [One London Night]. I am a great admirer of this novel, but its value as teaching material for language students is something new for me.

Speaking with confidence, Kanou said she had already spent time in Benares [Varanasi] and Delhi studying Urdu. There were a number of students who had experiences or plans of different universities in India. It is a great pity that Pakistan does not figure in their study and travel plans because of security concerns. People of my generation still remember that Japanese students of Urdu would visit the universities of Karachi and Punjab regularly, but this is a thing of the past. Sadly, the authorities here couldn’t care less and have done little to allay the security concerns of students from abroad.

Boarding the fabled bullet train and travelling to Kyoto, I was fortunate to have as my guide So Yamane, who teaches Urdu at Osaka University, and we walked through the city of temples talking in and about Urdu. Yamane read Urdu at the Oriental College in Lahore and carried out research work in Karachi. It was then that I first met him at the behest of legendary scholar Mushfiq Khwaja. Yamane went on to publish a meticulously researched and thorough monograph on Ghulam Abbas. It appeared as a book from Lahore and needs to be reprinted as it remains a standard work on this much admired author, a fine model for other researchers. Yamane is working on Rani Ketki Ki Kahani [The Story of Rani Ketki] these days.

With loving detail, Hiroshi recounted for me the century-long history of Urdu studies in Japan. It was in April 1908 that a course in Hindustani was opened at the Tokyo School of Foreign Languages, which later became a university. As the course led on to an entire department, its early faculty included the enigmatic freedom fighter Barkatullah from Bhopal, who was later dismissed from service and deported at the insistence of the British Indian government. In 1932, Noorul Hassan Barlas became associated with the institute and wrote a number of articles on Japanese culture, contributing to the Delhi-based literary magazine Saqi’s special issue on Japan.

Once the educational system was reorganised after the Second World War, Urdu departments were established at both Tokyo and Osaka’s Universities of Foreign Studies. Urdu is also taught at Daito Bunka University. Through the pioneering efforts of Takeshi Suzuki, widely respected as a dedicated scholar, basic work on compiling a Japanese-Urdu dictionary and Urdu grammar was carried out. There is an entire galaxy of committed scholars and their endeavours, working against unimaginable odds, seem to be a worthwhile subject for research in itself. Khurram Sohail has devoted an entire book on Japan-related cultural themes, but it is a fascinating story which needs to be told in full detail.

One most important figure, highly respected for translations of Mirza Ghalib, Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hasan Manto is Hiroji Kataoka whom I later met at the International Urdu Conference organised by the Arts Council in Karachi. Kataoka began his long span as a translator by rendering Manto’s short stories into Japanese. It took him several years to render Gahlib’s Divan into Japanese, but he kept refining and adding to the critical introduction in order to make the poet accessible to Japanese readers. Not stopping here, he went on to translate selections from Iqbal and the works of Faiz. Earlier, T. Matsumura published his translations from the poetry of Mir Taqi Mir followed by Wali Mohammad Wali and Khwaja Mir Dard. The flip side of the coin is that Lahore’s Mashal Books undertook translations, with support from a Japanese foundation, of books by Yasunari Kawabata, Shusako Endo, Kobe Abe and other Japanese modern masters. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

The columnist teaches a course on reading the Partition in fiction and film at a university in Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 7th, 2017