There is an old Arabic adage: The death of a scholar is the death of the world. Falling well within the tradition of classical Arabic verse, this adage also sounds exaggerated. However, in the intellectual wasteland we have created for ourselves, and in the area of limited literary scholarship we can boast of — in Urdu and other languages that we speak — very occasionally there comes a time when one is hit by the depth and meaning of this adage. In the passing away of Muhammad Umar Memon, the world of Urdu letters has suffered a colossal loss. Be it criticism, literary history, fiction or translation, his contribution is incomparable to most and at par with the best we have ever produced.
A couple of years ago, it was at Dr Najeeba Arif’s place in Islamabad that I last met Memon. Dr Arif, who is a formidable poet and critic in her own right, was Memon’s host when he visited the city from his permanent abode in the United States. As the conversation progressed, he reached the point of becoming angry and bitter. Utterly dismissive of Pakistani Urdu scholars for neither being diligent enough in their work nor having the requisite theoretical knowledge, he said: “They only read what is on offer by local authors — mostly conventional poets or run-of-the-mill short story writers in Pakistan and India — and think that that should suffice. They seldom take interest in other languages and contemporary literary theories, and are therefore unable to appreciate what is considered good literature in modern times. From among the locals they tend to ignore the avant-garde or superior writers. Or perhaps they cannot understand them properly. As a consequence, they either regurgitate what has been said before or produce a very low quality critique.”
When I tried to name a few exceptions to his overall judgement, Memon frowned at me and said, “You may believe in a broad church when it comes to politics, not in literature and criticism. Either you are good or you are bad.” I recall a similar disappointment Memon showed for the Urdu publishing industry when we were together some years ago at Heidelberg University. He thought that in both Karachi and Lahore, publishers were insincere to their authors. “How can they dare ask a poor writer to fund the publication of his book instead of paying him a decent royalty? If they are making no gains, please explain to me their altruistic reason for staying in this business. I can trust you if you name one or two, but how come the large publishers are busy building their new houses, and keep buying cars of the latest model, when writers are told that books don’t sell.” Again, he was not ready to accept if there were any exceptions.
Memon had his witty side, too, but he was uncompromising when it came to his academic principles and what he considered good quality writing. One may certainly have different preferences from those of Memon when it comes to literature and literary criticism — whether classical or contemporary. But any world of letters needs such people who raise the bar high. The harsh criticism of someone as large and overwhelming as Memon paves the way for serious writers to continuously seek improvement and strive for excellence without ever being complacent with their output. He had the courage of snubbing a well-known poet to her face for using a word incorrectly during a conversation.
The dissatisfaction that had made him cynical never stopped Memon from enriching our knowledge and impacting our consciousness. From a scholarly work on Ibn Taymiyyah to translations of theoretical works from Arabic and Persian into English, to translations and compilations of literary works from Urdu into English and vice versa, he carried on with passion besides writing his own short fiction. Memon was a Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Arabic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and editor of the Annual of Urdu Studies. He leaves behind numerous books.
Rest in peace Muhammad Umar Memon. Your well-meaning anger will forever be missed.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 10th, 2018