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M. Umar Memon | Photo courtesy Dr Saeed Naqvi
M. Umar Memon | Photo courtesy Dr Saeed Naqvi

Memories of bygone days, endless book talk, bittersweet discussions, a passion for the best in fiction, regular epistolary communication, literary feuds, publication deadlines, anthologies and, above all, translation and scholarship come rushing to my mind as I try to fathom a friend’s Facebook status announcing that Muhammad Umar Memon is no more. While it is a tremendous loss for the world of literature, it is no less a personal loss for me. Writer, translator, scholar and leading literary figure, Memon sahib (as he was respectfully and sometimes fearfully known in literary circles) was in a class of his own. He was both erudite and eccentric. He single-handedly broadened the horizons and opened up new avenues of imagination and expression through an armload of translations.

“Translation for me stems from two different but interrelated impulses: a good text matures for the reader with every reading, reveals itself gradually –– call it literary striptease. I can delve into it only through extended togetherness. Translation makes it possible to tease out all I can through this prolonged intimacy. The other insatiable impulse is to uncover my own potential,” he remarked in a delightful email interview with another distinguished translator of South Asian literature, Daisy Rockwell, who blogs under the name Lapata. Translations can also be a search for past addresses and lost contacts.

The son of Allama Abdul Aziz Memon, one of the most distinguished Arabicists and a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University, Muhammad Umar Memon was born in Aligarh in 1939. Much younger than his siblings, he would later recall his childhood days as the most vividly remembered period of a life spent in many cities. He graduated from the University of Karachi and went on to complete his studies from Harvard and UCLA with a doctorate on Ibn Taymmiah. He became affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1970 and remained associated with it, subsequently, as Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Arabic Studies.

Eminent scholar M. Umar Memon, who passed away on June 4, opened up new avenues of expression through an armload of translations

His large body of translations from Urdu was triggered by a personal need. Requiring good texts to teach, he decided to roll up his sleeves and take the task upon himself. Through a distinguished series of anthologies and later with a focus on individual writers, he introduced the world to the largely undiscovered riches of contemporary Urdu fiction. From An Epic Unwritten to The Colour of Nothingness: Modern Urdu Short Stories, from ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’ to Do You Suppose It’s the East Wind: Stories from Pakistan, he edited and largely translated a remarkable series, a virtual treasure trove of contemporary Urdu short fiction. The most recent was The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told which, in spite of a rather flamboyant title, was a useful compilation.

The anthologies were complemented by representative selections from the short fiction of Intizar Husain, Naiyer Masud, Abdullah Hussein and Ikramullah. Memon sahib was one of the first scholars to explore the rich inner world of Intizar Husain’s nuanced fiction, but took offence when I did not see eye to eye with some of his conclusions. Probably his greatest achievement here was the Collected Stories of Naiyer Masud, a monumental tribute to this difficult but rewarding writer. How I wish he had done more translations of the works of Hasan Manzar, Asad Mohammad Khan or Khalida Husain; but nobody could ever predict what Memon sahib would do next. He went on to a complete rendering of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short fiction in My Name is Radha, a labour of love which could have served some of Manto’s contemporaries less known outside the Urdu-Hindi circles. Very focused in his choices, Memon sahib was somewhat dismissive of the writers after his own generation. And then he would also fall out with his favourite. He allowed the Abdullah Hussein translation to go out of print. “Intizar Husain is now dead for me for many years,” he remarked to me and, seeing shocked disbelief on my face, relished that he had hit a nerve. Milan Kundera was one of his literary idols, but he was quick to join the demolition squad and one of the last things he sent me was a piece trashing Kundera.

Distinguished critic Shamim Hanfi with Umar Memon
Distinguished critic Shamim Hanfi with Umar Memon

From among his books I particularly cherish Tareek Gali, the only collection of his own short stories. Even before a translator, he had acquired a reputation as a promising writer of fiction and the story after which he named the book is a remarkable ‘slice of life’ based on an incident that took place at the University of Karachi. “Consigned to well-deserved oblivion” was how he later spoke about it. “There is a regret,” he did admit in the Lapata conversation, “a thwarted writer still lurks inside me. Basically, I have a writer’s temperament, if not a writer’s perseverance.”

Perseverance was what he showed in his rather large output of translations into Urdu, which he felt was “in dire need for its own literary production.” “It is not only words or the thoughts and ideas, but also the narrative structure –– the otherwise prosaic business of constructing a story –– that can shine the way for Urdu writers,” he wrote. For this purpose, he rendered the writings of Kundera, Orhan Pamuk, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Sandor Marai and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others. His translation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s illuminating Letters to a Young Novelist titled Naujawan Novel-Nigar Kay Naam Khat led to a spirited exchange of letters with Muhammad Hameed Shahid and became a book by itself. His multi-volume selections from The Paris Review Interviews were his most ambitious undertaking. Meticulous to the extent of being sometimes pedantic, and not willing to let go until he had squeezed the very last drop, his style suffered from it. So Francoise Sagan’s A Certain Smile became Kuch Aur Si Muskurahat. However, he remained ambitious as he continued to work till his final days, battling with syntax and cancer at the same time. The last stop in his ceaseless search for a suitable publisher, Hoori Noorani, told me that he sent her some completed typescripts asking her to publish these if she wanted to, even though he would no longer be able to see the published books. Who knows if something else pops out from much that he left behind.

Worthy of detailed discussion are the two books, Izutsu on Islamic mysticism and historical articles on the culture of Andalusia. He moved away from such analysis to fiction studies. An important turn in his academic career was when he took over the Annual of Urdu Studies, founded by C.M. Naim, and re-established it as the leading scholarly journal in its field, its contents a standard point of reference for scholars. He was very unhappy when it ran into financial difficulties and ultimately folded. He was particularly annoyed with overseas Pakistanis who would spend more on lavish dinners, but not support serious academic work.

He befriended me as a young writer, but many years of congenial exchanges turned sour because of differing viewpoints on certain subjects. Memon sahib deserves to be given due recognition, even if belated and posthumous. His passing away shall be mourned, but his solid achievements need to be celebrated.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 10th, 2018