May 12, 2019


Yesterday, from a table piled with my favourite books, I retrieved a translation of The Four Dervishes. I had studied its Urdu original version, Bagh-o-Bahaar, as a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the late ’70s. In 1994, I bought the translation at a bookshop in Bloomsbury; I’d only vaguely remembered the intricate mosaic of stories, but as I read them, they began to come back. I immediately began a search for my battered old Urdu edition.

The text purports to derive from a Persian original by Khusrau, but many scholars say that’s a fiction about a fiction. Whatever its provenance, it’s become a favourite of mine for its deft structure, exhilarating storytelling and the music of its prose — as exciting as any of the Western fantasies that obsess my younger friends. Though I’ve occasionally felt frustrated by the way it leaves its lovers suspended in mourning and misery, I realised — rereading it in one sitting yesterday — that the quest, the journey and the unfulfilled longings, not the desultory happy endings, are the real point of the tales. Rediscovering it caused a subtle shift in my aesthetic as the realistic story I was writing, set in contemporary London, swerved into enchanted terrain. Ever since, as reader and writer, I’ve veered between fact and fancy.

I’m not an avid reader of long daastaans. I do find some of the stories of the Hatim Tai cycle, which I acquired in a lucid Urdu version about a decade ago, as spellbinding as they must have been to the live audiences who heard them recited. But let’s leave the glory of traditional tales for another time and talk about how yesterday’s encounter with the dervishes reminded me of some inspired moments in my long reading life.

I was 15 when, in an open-air bookstall in Colaba, Bombay [Mumbai], I came across an English translation of Mirza Hadi Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada by Khushwant Singh, retitled The Courtesan of Lucknow, with a lurid pink cover depicting a bejewelled dancing girl with a bare belly. It was 1970. I had spent 18 months at a boarding school in Ooty and, because of a chicken pox scare sweeping the country, another six months in small central Indian towns where my only entertainment was reading both classics and trash in English and watching (mostly) Hindi movies. I was on my way to school in England and hungry for something rooted in my own native literature and history. Popular films had prepared me for the novel’s world of feudal lords and courtesans, but the sophistication of its handling of historical context — the decline of the kingdom of Awadh and the so-called ‘mutiny’ of 1857 — was a revelation. So was its innovative narrative technique: the author appeared as a crucial character who allowed the eponymous heroine to comment on and query his account of her life.

Five years later, a study of the Urdu original led me to relearn my forgotten mother tongue. Shah Saheb, my gentle giant of an Urdu tutor, corralled me into going through the text in a few days, to prepare for an A level which I passed with the highest marks I’d ever had, that got me into SOAS a couple of years later. I didn’t know then that I’d study it in depth in my Urdu literature course. In class, we argued about the influence of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders on Ruswa; my tutor, David Matthews, who later did his own translation of the novel, constantly objected to the coincidences in the story, which didn’t bother me at all, nor did Western ideas of what ‘the novel’ should be.

I wasn’t enamoured of other Urdu fiction on our curriculum. Nazir Ahmed’s Taubut un Nasuh was tedious. The harsh morality of Munshi Premchand and his Progressive followers didn’t appeal either. I never liked Saadat Hassan Manto much. I graduated with a sweeping knowledge of Urdu poetry, from the lyrical grace of Quli Qutb Shah and Wali Dakhni to the reformist zeal of Altaf Hussain Hali, the modernity of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, the grand declamations of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and the innovative imagery of my old favourite, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I carried away an abiding love of masnavis and Mir Taqi Mir (about whom my tutor Ralph Russell had written at length) and a focused understanding of Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Sachal Sarmast’s Seraiki verses (I took Seraiki as a special subject with Christopher Shackle).

It was poetry I meant when I cited Urdu literature. But seven years (that magical number) after graduation, I came upon a volume of short fiction by Ismat Chughtai. Reading her intimate and powerful fictions gave my writing a direction I felt it had so far lacked, as my available models until then had been mostly Western. Terrhi Lakeer [The Crooked Line] brought to life a generation before mine — who’d experienced the Second World War and struggled for independence — in a way no Anglophone novelist ever has or will.

These authors I’ve chosen are curiously linked to colonialism’s rise and fall. Mir Amman, commissioned by company officials to write a textbook in language they could comprehend; Ruswa, bearing witness to the ruins of a flourishing civilisation at the hands of imperial greed; Chughtai, plagued and bothered by the Brits. I’ll end here with yet another text that engages with the imperial trajectory. In 1990, a student handed me a romanised transcript of Nazir Ahmed’s Mirat ul Uroos she’d found in the SOAS library and we started reading it together. The dialogue — Aqil criticising his wife for wasting her time with working-class girlfriends and playing games and musical instruments — made us laugh so loudly that we had to leave the library. I borrowed a copy (in Urdu) right away, initially for the joy of the language. I was soon entranced by the author’s depiction, through women’s lives and domestic interiors, of that period of drastic change after 1857, largely obscured by colonial records of the time.

I know we’re meant to question Ahmed’s political allegiances. And I’m aware of debates about whether this is a novel or a text to educate and socialise young women in the idiom they were most familiar with, not in the language of their colonial masters. Ahmed called his books qissas [stories]; Eurocentric discussions of its novelistic status don’t concern me. It’s a brilliant comedy of manners with dark edges of parable. For the sheer pleasure of reading, I’d exchange dozens of 19th century British classics for this tiny jewel box of a book.

The columnist is a London-based short story writer and novelist

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 12th, 2019