A young boy plays around in the narrow corridors of a dilapidated house dimly lit by kerosene lanterns casting long shadows on stained walls. In the reception room for male visitors, the flames of these rust-bitten lanterns flicker wildly because of the wind channelling in from the adjoining courtyard. Sitting around a shaky table whose joints are loose and decrepit, a group of youthful students listens to a formidable sage read and explicate literary giants of classical Arabic poetry. Names such as Al Mutanabbi, Al Ma‘arri and Al Jahiz float around in the room; the young boy thinks these are appellations of Arabic sweets that his father, the sage, would bring back from Egypt on his next visit.
As the night completes its descent and the horizon sinks fully into darkness, the muezzin from a local mosque calls for prayers and the session goes into recess. A handsome young man, who stands out among the students because of his looks and restless demeanour, beckons the young boy. The unruly kid ignores the call. Displeased by this insubordination, the student takes off his shoe from his right foot and waves it at the child, signalling him vigorously to approach the shaky table. Now the little one, mildly terrorised, yields. “Go inside and ask your mother to send a tray of tea over!” The instruction from the student is uttered sternly.
The child takes the order to his mother who is to be found in the dark depths of the house. “One of father’s students kept waving a shoe at me. He wants you to send a tray of tea over.” “What?!” The mother is deeply offended. “Who was it?” she asks. “I bet it was that Umar Memon. He is known for this kind of behaviour, ordering my children around!” And then she resolves, “I shall send a complaint to his father. No, he cannot get away with it!” But her final words are prophetic, words that until this day echo back and forth in the chamber of history, summing up the essence of our protagonist: “Ah, so bright, so talented, so hard-working, and yet so rude, so erratic, this capricious student!” And the tray of tea is sent over, carried by a servant.
I have only slightly, very slightly, dramatised an account that is grounded fully in factual history. The sage, the teacher, was my father, Professor Allama Muntakhabul Haq, who later became the founder dean of the Faculty of Islamic Learning at the University of Karachi; the students in the house were all pursuing their Master’s degree in Arabic at that university; I was the unruly kid; and the house was located in a rundown area of Karachi where no electrical cables had reached at the time. Indeed, I have in my personal archives some precious photographs with Memon Sahib — these I plan to publish soon.
Muhammad Umar Memon died on June 3 this year, less than a month ago. I never expected this. Yes, he was a major figure in contemporary Urdu scholarship — an outstanding short story writer, a learned critic and a model translator. One more thing ought to be carved in our literary consciousness — through organisational skills and eye to detail, he proved to be a meticulous editor, taking to great heights the only world-class journal relating to Urdu, the Annual of Urdu Studies. Now he is gone and the journal’s publication ceased some time ago.
Memon Sahib was born in Aligarh in 1939, begotten by a personage who was a grand scholar of Arabic, Allama Abdul Aziz Memon. I remember my father acknowledging that, in all of South Asia, there existed no expert of Arabic language of the stature of the elder Memon. After the creation of Pakistan, the family moved to Lahore and then settled in Karachi in 1954. The younger Memon graduated from the University of Karachi, then went to Harvard University, finally receiving his doctorate from UCLA and settling as a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
All of us who knew Memon Sahib suffered his caprice — overwhelmingly kind and affectionate here, abrasive and condescending there; witty conversationalist in one gathering, anti-social in another.
Memon Sahib’s oeuvre presents a daunting corpus that looks like an overgrown jungle — creative writings, expository essays, literary criticism, scholarly discourses, interviews, surveys; writings in English and writings in Urdu; writings published in the United States and writings published in India and Pakistan. Here one finds Ibn Taymiyyah and Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Naiyer Masud and Orhan Pamuk, Intizar Husain and Saadat Hasan Manto, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Milan Kundera, Abdullah Hussein and Muhammad Hasan Askari, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Khadija Mastoor… The mind boggles!
In this jungle, what is the most prized yield? This is surely not a fair question. But if pressed, one might answer that the summum bonum that radiated forth from Memon Sahib seems to be his many translations. Not only do they embody a historic contribution because of their superb literary quality, they are historic also for their selection that introduces us to the field of contemporary fiction in world literature. Memon Sahib translated Nobel laureates and numerous outstanding world authors from French, Arabic and Spanish into flowing Urdu, generally rendered from English versions. We see him working in the other direction too — translating Urdu works into English. Recently, the publishers Maktaba-i-Daniyal sent me two of his beautifully produced Urdu renderings: Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Moroccan author Tahar ben Jelloun’s The Blinding Absence of Light.
But back to my mother’s pronouncement. All of us who knew Memon Sahib suffered his caprice — overwhelmingly kind and affectionate here, abrasive and condescending there; witty conversationalist in one gathering, anti-social in another. But, yes, his work always glowed with uncompromising quality and rigor. It seems that there did exist some supra-rational logic to his caprice. What was that logic? I don’t know. But just as the peak of a mountain wrapped in clouds remains invisible, and yet we are certain that it does exist, I am certain of that logic.
The columnist is visiting faculty member of the University of Pennsylvania and will soon join Habib University as Professor of Comparative Liberal Studies
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 1st, 2018