In order to flourish and have existential permanence, a language needs both chroniclers and ambassadors, in addition to gifted writers, poets and critics. Chroniclers to document the knowledge about the language’s many facets, and the dimensions with which it engages, so that future generations may build upon it. And ambassadors to share its riches with the world, and grow its influence and reach.
Professor Mr C.M. Naim has ably served both offices in his latest publication, the lovingly and meticulously researched Urdu Crime Fiction, 1890–1950: An Informal History, published by Orient Blackswan. Professor Emeritus in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago, Professor Naim founded and edited the Annual of Urdu Studies from 1981 to 1991, and has translated Mir Taqi Mir’s autobiography for the Murty Classical Library of India.
He writes: “Humankind, I like to believe, can be divided into two groups: one group swears by science fiction, the other cherishes only mysteries. I belong to the latter.” My hand is also raised. I remember, with great nostalgia, afternoons filled with many of the books C.M. Naim mentions in his study.
In Hyderabad, in my school days, a small grocery shop owner on one side of the Tilak Incline would rent out mysteries for a rupee a day. On the other side of the Incline, a used-book seller sold mystery digests for 10 rupees and bought them back for five.
When I moved to Karachi, I found near my nana’s house a small library which stocked mysteries by Ibn-i-Safi, Mazhar Kaleem and others. The library was run from a house by two brothers in a nearby alley. When you knocked on the window, one of them popped out and handed you the catalogue. The rent was eight annas a day.
To my mind, the many beloved translations from Edgar Allan Poe and other masters of horror and the macabre were originally written in Urdu. I never bothered to look at the author’s name. It was always the translator who decided the book’s merit for me. Here it should be noted that, in all these translations, the translator’s name was prominently displayed on the cover. It was not the author, but the translator who “moved” the books.
I must also confess that when I read some of these works in the original, I found them lacking the grip they had on my imagination, and the intimacy I felt with the story, when reading them in the translation.
Part of the reading pleasure was to quickly finish the book and move on the next. Non-stop action was what was needed, and when you have that, who needs interior life analysis? My speed-reading powers, at least in Urdu, are indebted to the enterprises run by these gentlemen, and also to the non-stop action. My reading life was not unique. There were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who were fed by similar libraries scattered throughout the Subcontinent.
But that was not the only conduit for these books. Most of these authors, including Ibn-i-Safi, had a self-distribution system that reached their readership through the beloved VP (Value Paid) Parcel, delivering their freshly published works to fans who could pay to buy the whole book, and not scrounge for money by means fair and not-so-fair, to rent them.
C.M. Naim’s book not only revives the memories of these writers from one of the best periods of my childhood, it also introduces many more writers whom I never got a chance to read. I quote from the publisher’s description of the book:
“[This] ‘informal history’ unravels how crime fiction first originated in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century, how Urdu writers responded to this new stimulus, and the rapid emergence of what then became the jasusi adab [mystery literature] in Urdu. Described as ‘wonder-inducing’ and ‘sleep-depriving,’ bearing titles like Khuni Chhatri (The Murderous Umbrella), Tilismi Burj (The Magic Turret), and Mistriz af Dihli (The Mysteries of Delhi), Urdu thrillers sold in the thousands.
“Aficionados of the Netflix series Lupin may be surprised to learn that, a century ago, Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, was adored by Urdu readers in his desi avatar, Bahram, ‘transcreated’ by Zafar Omar in a 1916 bestseller that made Bahram a household name. We discover Tirath Ram Ferozepuri, the prodigious translator of mysteries and thrillers — 114-odd titles, spanning 60,000 pages. We meet Nadeem Sahba’i, of unfettered imagination, who produced masterpieces of Urdu pulp fiction.
“Urdu crime writers were quick to capture the new material realities of urban India — from the ‘exotic’ mannequins, latex masks and ‘truth-serum’ to the everyday advertisements, gramophones and cameras. Significantly, they also highlighted India’s new ‘secular’ space — railway platforms, public parks, libraries, restaurants and cinemas, where people interacted, unburdened by tradition or identity — in ways that other Urdu writers failed to do. Their stories hold a mirror to ‘the idea of India’ before independence.”
I am endlessly grateful to Professor Naim, whom I have the honour of calling a friend, for this history of Urdu popular fiction. This landmark study will allow these books, lying in heaps in the old-book markets of our cities, or gathering dust and feeding insect colonies in house cupboards, to find new readers.
By its exhaustive nature, it will allow others to grow and develop the store of knowledge the author has built. Presented in English, the book introduces the readers and students of British and American mystery literature to how their masters of mystery literature lived and were remembered in the Urdu language.
I very much hope that an Urdu language translation of this work will be published soon. The many translators who toiled to bring these wonders from world literature to us, and the many others who wrote original works of mystery, are heroes of Urdu’s literary history, and their work has now been documented in a highly readable study, which itself reads like a delightful mystery.
The columnist is a novelist,
author and translator.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 17th, 2023