November 24, 2019


Reading on BBC2 about a series of programmes on the novels focusing on empire and race that shaped our world, I recalled a lively discussion I joined in Islamabad last month about Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s influence on the shaping of our history and social psychology. Entirely negative? Positive in some aspects? Shortage of time left our argument unresolved.

Last week, I found a partial answer in an Urdu novel from 1947: Aziz Ahmad’s Aisi Bulandi Aisi Pasti. It was translated in 1971 by Ralph Russell — one of my professors of Urdu literature — as Neither the Shore Nor the Wave. I first read it when I was 16 or 17 and a newcomer to London. Set in a fictionalised Hyderabad Deccan in the decades leading up to independence and Partition, the novel portrays, with a steely glance and a richly satirical voice, the lifestyle of a privileged class in the grandest princely state of the subcontinent.

I had visited Hyderabad twice in the late ’60s; in London I was entertained by the anecdotes of a visiting cousin who still lived there. She knew most of the characters Ahmad had lightly fictionalised (including one married to an Englishman, who was a leading socialite in London’s Indo-Pak elite). Thus the novel — the first translation from Urdu I’d ever read, aside from Umrao Jan Ada — came closer to my own life than any other fiction I’d read, with the possible exception of Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column.

I acquired my own copy of Ahmad’s novel in the late ’80s and became aware of the book’s status as a fine portrait of an inward looking society in decline, and of the world beyond its confines in a state of war and upheaval. This month, I finally decided to read the novel in its original version; the translation, Russell explains, contains significant revisions sanctioned by the author, notably in the final chapter which is set on the verge of Pakistan’s creation.

One passage I particularly wanted to locate is unchanged in its English translation. (I am quoting a large part of it, as it certainly echoed, rather than shaped, my view of the social history of princely India.)

“Three tides of Westernisation have flooded in upon our noble families. The first was after the mutiny (sic) of 1857, in Sir [Syed’s] day ... that Westernisation was something like that of the Turks and Egyptians today; ... European ways, European clothes, horse-riding, frocks for the girls ... English food, English drink ... in short, a desire to be just like the sahibs...” “The second tide sought to bring about a change from within. With it came nationalism, self-respect, a sense of dignity, an enthusiasm for Western literature, the Western arts and sciences.”

Ahmad, known as a pioneering writer of Urdu fiction in the years before Partition, later emerged as one of the West’s leading historians of Indian Islam. Interestingly, in his novel, Ahmad compares Hyderabad not to other colonial dominions, but to Turkey — itself in the 1890s an empire — and Egypt. He leaves us to wonder about the ways that the subcontinent might have accepted modernisation (simultaneous at the time with Westernisation) without colonisation. (This is the question that remains unanswered, but the attitudes of princely India do present one possible scenario.) Neither the second wave, Ahmad concludes, nor the third — of socialism, nationalism and free-thinking — that may have brought about “a revolution among the Indian people”, were more than an intellectual trend for the characters of his novel.

But these latter tides, brilliantly depicted in the works of Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder, also deeply underlie Ahmad’s perspective and shaped the post-imperial world in which I was born. Cosmopolitanism — albeit limited in those days before the web — was something which my parents’ generation took for granted, while they never for a moment doubted their cultural and national identities. Free thinking, in their opinion, was never limited to the West — Ahmad, for example, mentions, along with Sir Syed, the reformists Khwaja Altaf Hussain Hali and Nazeer Ahmed. These figures were maligned by some later critics as tools of colonial power but, nevertheless, in their critique of outmoded traditions, influenced a literature that, while it aspired to a modern aesthetic, tried at the same time to struggle free of the shackles of empire. (Tellingly, Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s verses are also cited in the last pages of Aisi Bulandi Aisi Pasti.)

Underlying the post-Raj zeal for a brave new world, however, was a certain identity crisis that beset a generation of educated and privileged youth; while they espoused radical ideals (some exported wholesale from the West) they continued, like Ahmad’s elite, to identify closely with their Western counterparts and even oppressors, as Hyder’s Safina-i-Gham-i-Dil (freshly translated by Saleem Kidwai as Ship of Sorrows) reveals. Hyder, in her later novels and memoirs, was to become undoubtedly the greatest fictional chronicler of our 20th century experience. In her fledgling fictions, along with full awareness of the three overlapping tides, she also displays a nostalgia for an anglophile youth who saw themselves, with their borrowed names and hybrid aesthetics, as strangers where they lived. They carried with them this longing for a Western lifestyle to the metropolitan centres of the new nation of Pakistan.

Unlike Ahmad, whose attitude to his characters consistently balances indulgence with mockery, Hyder only transcends the yearnings of her ‘lost generation’ in the harsh conclusion of Safina-i-Gham-i-Dil. Even her Urdu prose often reads like an evocation of English modernism in contrast to the hard, pure syntax of her later fictions about Pakistan.

Both novels — one about Lucknow, a bastion of imperial mores, the other about Hyderabad, a technically autonomous but self-consciously hybridised feudal state — are innovative modernist narratives that cast some light on the past that shaped us. Both also end on a note of premonition. But let us allow Ahmad the final word: “Yes! Yes! Ram Rajya in India and Allah’s rule in Pakistan ... now build your bridges across the stream of milk and honey to your palace in Paradise.”

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

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 24th, 2019