Qissa Sipahizada (Urdu)
By Khushdil Kiratpuri
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160755
64pp.

The Adventures of a Soldier (English)
Translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi
Kitab, Karachi, in association with Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics
ISBN: 978-9696160670
44pp.

A rather embarrassing disclaimer first: the last time I read any Urdu prose was during A Levels. Since then, my Urdu reading has been confined to just catching the flash of ‘Breaking News’ on television channels.

Thus, I was relieved that Qissa Sipahizada by Khushdil Kiratpuri was a slim volume and I assumed it to be a short, easy read. Part of a series brought out by the Getz Pharma Library of Urdu Classics, it has been translated into English by Musharraf Ali Farooqi as The Adventures of a Soldier.

After having read both the Urdu and English versions, I might say this review is less of a critique and more a foray into uncharted territory for a millennial who has lost her way and forgotten what it is like to think and imagine in her mother tongue.

Context and genre are crucial to understanding any piece of literature, but are often taken for granted when we stay within our comfort zones. Farooqi describes the qissa as “not the romance as understood in the Western tradition”, but something that “had a role and a function within the society, while remaining accessible to the wider world.”

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s translation of an Urdu qissa is done with panache, but the joy of reading it in the original is unmatched

As I started on Qissa Sipahizada, I quickly realised that I needed more help than what an Urdu dictionary and Google could give. Enter my father, an aficionado of Urdu who took all of 30 minutes to absorb the text. He then turned to me and said, “Go, get some paper.”

He wrote down the roots of words that relayed dual meaning and nuances. When I suggested I read the Urdu and English side by side so that it would be easier to understand, he explained that in order to enjoy and grasp the beauty of the Urdu text, I should read it as a whole without the crutch offered by the English translation.

This is when I really began to read the story the way it was intended to be read, with my father reminding me that, this time round, it wasn’t about scraping through an exam, but enjoying the depth of the language.

Slowly, the familiarity with Urdu returned and letters and words became softer and more melodious on the tongue. The very clever Soldier, the thugs and their father materialised into characters whose motivations and characters I could understand just from the words used to draw their story.

And every time I understood the purpose or meaning of a word or phrase, it led to an apnaaiyat ka ehsaas, or a sense of belonging and ownership.

Qissa Sipahizada is a very simple tale: a soldier is given a bull in lieu of wages and he heads home intending to sell the animal, but an encounter with two thugs throws his plan off course. The thugs dupe him of his prize bull and think that is the end of it. However, the soldier has a few — and, it must be said, rather elaborate — tricks up his sleeve to reclaim his bull, with an extra pound of flesh! To reveal more would be a disservice to the plot.

Kiratpuri’s version narrates the story in measured cadence; one can feel the silent rhythm that dances between the words. There is no punctuation, so it flows uninterruptedly from start to end. This is essentially because, before words began to be written down, the oral rendition of qissaas and daastaans was an inherent part of the Subcontinent’s rich culture of storytelling and — according to the book’s introductory notes — Kiratpuri is telling the story as he heard it from the 18th century poet Bhikari Das Bijnori.

In a piece for the website Scroll, Farooqi writes: “The Urdu classical narrative genres of qissa and daastaan … offer some of the finest stories in world literature. But I understood that, until a number of these works were translated into other languages, they would not be fully appreciated. Yet these works could not be translated on any large scale until they were first reintroduced and widely read within their culture.”

This resonated with me because I hadn’t truly ‘read’ any Urdu literature until now. Left to my own devices — and also having an English version at hand — I probably wouldn’t have even considered reading it in my native tongue.

In the same article, Farooqi further writes: “A devoted reader does not discriminate between one arrangement of words and another, or between words and numbers.” My father pointed this out as well and, as my verbal dexterity improved, I realised how empowering it is to be able to understand the nuances that are intrinsic and unique to Urdu.

I began to enjoy the ebb and flow, the sing-song, almost romanticised play on words that lent a deeper and much more specific meaning to thoughts and feelings. I felt a pull that breathes life into words.

Kiratpuri is in complete control of his narration and it is astonishing how — because of elements specific to a certain language — a story can be so concise, fast-paced and tightly knit, yet have a proper beginning, middle and end in place.

Farooqi chose to translate the qissa in English prose rather than the original verse form. In an interview, he explains: “My translation is an introduction to the story for a modern reader who is not familiar with the source text or has difficulty reading it … In the original it is a masterwork, and the translation is a device to bring a greater readership to the story that the masterwork tells.”

There is much that can — and does — get lost in translation, but Farooqi does complete justice to The Adventures of a Soldier, shining the spotlight on the original story and maintaining its integrity and essence. Urdu’s rhythmic, almost trance-like movement is replaced with a smooth-running narrative that maintains Kiratpuri’s poetics. I would imagine it is tricky to capture and document the subtleties of Urdu in English, but Farooqi achieves this with panache.

In a conversation with German media outlet DW.com, Farooqi explains how British colonialism created “an identity mess that could not be reversed.” This stands true: the fact that I feel like a foreigner reading my native tongue, and can express myself more lucidly in English than in Urdu, is evidence of this.

My father has always encouraged me to read the great Urdu writers — in Urdu. But I’ve read Saadat Hasan Manto, Patras Bokhari, Abdul Haleem Sharar and Deputy Nazir Ahmed all in English because my Urdu was not sufficient to understand the works of these icons.

As an aspiring Pakistani writer, I feel the only way to achieve authenticity and depth in writing is to be well acquainted with the language, culture and literary tradition that Urdu has always been proud of. Farooqi’s endeavour to make Urdu accessible and “user-friendly” managed to finally push me in the right direction.

I will end with a quote from Farooqi’s interview with DW.com, because it is extremely important for us to acknowledge and realise that Urdu literature needs to be taken out of the confines of the classroom and brought into the everyday:

“Despite the huge interest in the English-language writers from India in the recent past and the current interest that exists in the English-language fiction coming out of Pakistan, there is almost zero interest by English publishers in seeking out and publishing original works from Urdu or Hindi in translation, and this situation is not because of any absence of good translations from Urdu. It reveals to me more about how Western publishers see English-language writers from the Subcontinent as somehow being more relevant to their markets.”

Language ties us to our roots and gives us an identity. If we can’t take ownership of that identity by promoting and working towards keeping Urdu literary thought relevant, it will continue to decline and cause irreparable damage to who we are.

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature. She can be contacted at saharshehryar@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 19th, 2022

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