Inam Nadeem is among those who embrace different forms of art with equal vivacity. His extraordinary comprehension of Urdu, Sindhi and Punjabi poetry and prose, South Asian cinema, classical, semi-classical and film music, and the history of our art forms and literature can be compared to few others, particularly in my generation.

Over the years, Nadeem has also developed a knack for translating fiction written in other languages into Urdu. He picks texts which may resonate with our prevalent sensibility and cultural milieu. Some time ago, Nadeem’s masterful translation of Rabisankar Bal’s Dozakhnama — originally written in Bangla and reaching Nadeem through its English version Dozakhnama: Conversations in Hell — attracted favourable reviews. Recently, he has translated a selection of Bhisham Sahni’s Hindi short stories into Urdu, titled Amritsar Aagaya Hai [Arrived at Amritsar].

Unlike what many people may believe, converting chaste Hindi text into Urdu is not merely transliteration, if your target readership is essentially Pakistani. It is not just the specificity of language used in any certain discipline that creates a distance between Urdu and Hindi; the idiom that captures complex emotions and intricate feelings has — to an extent — evolved differently in Hindi and Urdu.

The street language — which may be called Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani, with limited vocabulary — is similar, if not the same, but the literary languages of Hindi and Urdu are not one body. They are like siblings who can speak to each other, but their idioms remain different. Nadeem understands that well. Therefore, his rendition of Sahni’s Hindi stories into Urdu turns them into Urdu short stories. It is the current literary diction and idiom that Nadeem uses with ease, the riveting, lucid Urdu prose which befits Sahni’s idiomatic and grounded expression in Hindi. I would agree with Muhammad Hameed Shahid when he says that Inam Nadeem recreates an original in his translation like a new original.

Sahni (1915-2003) was a Rawalpindi-born celebrated writer, playwright, actor and left-wing political activist. He studied at Government College, Lahore, and took active part in the freedom movement from a very young age. The famous Bollywood actor Balraj Sahni was Bhisham’s elder brother. Their family had to move from Pakistan to India after Partition in 1947. Sahni is best known for his novel Tamas [Darkness] on the events of Partition and the senselessness of the times that brought death, destruction, migration and loss. It was published in 1974, serialised as a television play in India and then later converted into a film, which was an instant hit with select audiences that crave for a certain kind of period drama.

Sahni’s short stories have no less power and grit. He was a prolific writer, but Nadeem has selected 23 stories from his repertoire that make Sahni stand out among Hindi fiction writers of his time. Perhaps Nadeem finds Sahni appealing because he is very close to his contemporary Urdu short story writers who were associated with the Progressive Writers’ Movement in the middle of the 20th century. Like Sahni, they used creative expression to highlight the sub-human conditions in which common people in our part of the world live.

But the art of knowing where craft should take precedence over his opinion keeps Sahni from becoming a social commentator in his fiction.

There was also a desire to change the social and political status quo. However, for Sahni, the overarching reference — not the entire theme — in most of his writings remains the suffering inflicted upon people as a consequence of the division of the Indian Subcontinent. Along with that, we hear his concerned, creative voice reverberating in all his stories for the weak, dispossessed, downtrodden and invisible individuals and sections of society. But the art of knowing where craft should take precedence over his opinion keeps Sahni from becoming a social commentator in his fiction. He remains a delicate storyteller, whose characters range from an old, neglected mother to a young, pregnant labourer, from a boy made to convert faiths to an inconsequential office clerk.

The story whose title is also used as the title of the book — ‘Amritsar Aagaya Hai’ — is about a train ride on the eve of Partition, when communal tensions are running high. Riots are breaking out, but the land is still undivided. The story encapsulates how larger events impact individual consciousness. How we act when in fear, and how quickly we transform when that fear is replaced with a sense of security and entitlement. The possibility of using violence as a tool to exact revenge for some real or perceived event or idea is entirely dependent on external circumstances.

Amritsar remains the first port of call if we cross the border from Pakistan and enter India by road or by train. Sahni’s train ride also made me reminisce about my visits to Amritsar some years ago, and the place it has in my imagination because of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the British and the remarkable literary contribution in Urdu by those who came from this city. Besides being the centre of the Sikh faith and Punjabi language, so many icons of Urdu literature — from Saadat Hasan Manto to Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, from Jamila Hashmi to Ikramullah, and from A. Hameed to Zaheer Kashmiri — came from Amritsar.

I also remember when writer, translator and academic at the Guru Nanak Dev University, the late Dr Jatinderpal Singh Jolly, took me around the old city and found for me the remnants of the house where my maternal grandfather was born. It was almost razed at that time, to be replaced by a new building. In Lucknow, I was not permitted to enter the house where my paternal grandfather was born because it was occupied by a conservative family and no male member was available to show me around.

Our two countries were born in the throes of mindless violence, which was repeated in 1971 when a third country was founded. It seems we have decided not to learn anything from the past, and Sahni’s train ride continues into the future.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 10th, 2021

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