Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is among modern Urdu’s most renowned voices, both as a critic and as a fiction writer. His critical ouevre includes a pathbreaking four-volume study of the poet Mir Taqi Mir, and another influential four-volume work on Urdu’s rambunctious romance epic, the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza. His fiction is also highly acclaimed, and he is somewhat unique in having been his own translator into English. He speaks on how he began writing, moving from fiction to criticism, translating from Urdu to English, and his experience of the Urdu and English literary spheres.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about when and how your fiction first began to be published? Was it in literary journals, or newspapers or magazines, or was it directly in book-form?
I am known generally as a critic, but I began as a fiction writer in Urdu. I wrote stories from a very early age and got some of them published in Urdu literary magazines. (More rejections, as I remember, than acceptances.)
I wrote a short novel when I was about 15 or a bit more. The year must have been 1950, or early 1951. I was lucky to get it published in a four instalments in a literary magazine published from Meerut (Merath). I saved neither the manuscript (I wrote it twice), nor the issues in which it was published. I am not sorry that I didn’t preserve anything, because I am quite ashamed of it now. I was young and I believed that I was older than my years, and full of confidence that I knew about most things in the world.
I don’t think I had any ambitions to write in English. Getting my work printed in minor Urdu magazines was as much as I could manage at that time.
Q. There is a strong tradition of literary discussion in Urdu. Would you say that book reviews, media coverage and literary awards in Urdu helped you gain readers?
Yes, Urdu literary culture is perhaps the most self-aware among the literary cultures that I am acquainted with. But I am not sure that reviews, favourable or unfavourable, help gain readers in my literary culture. Those who want to read will read. An adverse review could damage a book of poems – though even that is doubtful – but there as many kinds of fiction as there are kinds of readers, almost. So whatever you write can get published, given a degree of luck.
Popular publishing (there was, and is, some money in it), or what is now called “pulp fiction” needs no publicity, no reviews. “Literary” fiction in Urdu was almost always backed by some established parameters – fiction about women, about the life and problems and struggles of rural folk, about the urban blue collar type, and so on. When I began writing, the parameters most solidly established were those set up by the Progressive Movement. I somehow fought shy of becoming one of them.
In the mid-twentieth century, when I was trying to become a writer, there were no awards, no prizes, no media coverage for Urdu. The Progressives got some media coverage in some of the liberal left wing popular magazines like the weekly Urdu Blitz. That was all.
Urdu at that time was a neglected language, a language damned as “foreign” or “Pakistani”. The cultural supremacy that it enjoyed over most of northern India at the time of Independence dissolved and disappeared very quickly.
Q. Why – and when – did you decide to start translating your own work from Urdu to English?
I had no intention, no hope, no ambition to set up as a writer in any language other than Urdu. Indian writing in English was confined to a few “privileged” writers, long established and unchallenged.
Even GV Desani’s remarkable novel All About H. Hatterr (1948) attracted no attention in India. Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi (1940) had attracted attention in Progressive circles because Ahmed Ali at that time was a leading light of the Progressive movement.
Setting up as a writer in a “backward” and maligned language like Urdu was itself a big challenge in the 1950s and early 1960s. And I certainly didn’t imagine that my writing in Urdu was rich or strong enough to merit being translated in English, or any modern Indian language. In fact, those things were so far and so much below (or above) my horizon that they didn’t cause me any concern at all.
I wasn’t really interested in translating my fiction into English. Penguin had a plan to get it translated into Engish and all the major modern Indian languages. A fairly competent translator was found for Hindi, but no translator could be found for English. My daughters, who are the most faithful of my followers, were sure that I was the best person to do the translation. They kept after me and I decided to make the translation just to get them off my back. After the novel, it was quite obvious to everyone, including me, that the stories deserve me as their translator.
Q. But you had translated your work into English before this.
About the same time that I wrote my novella, in early 1951 or so, I wrote a short story. It was about the oppression suffered by innocent, harmless people in the Soviet regime. One of my teachers, who read the manuscript, said: “This reads like a story written by some major writer!”
Foolishly, instead of thanking him, I replied sheepishly that indeed I was the author. I don’t remember if I published the story somewhere, but I saved a copy, and in 1953-1954, when I was reading English for my M.A. from the University of Allahabad, I translated the story into English and submitted it to the professor in charge of the University magazine. Somewhat to my surprise, he accepted the story and printed it in the magazine for 1953-54.
I didn’t save the Urdu, nor did I save the English version, far less keep a copy of the magazine. I regarded the whole matter as just one of those things. I had no intention to set up as a writer in English, either through translations of my own stories, or writing directly into English.
The Urdu title of the story was Surkh Andhi. I translated it as The Scarlet Tempest. My professor made no change in the title, but I later realized that Shakespeare (perhaps in Richard II) had ‘crimson tempest’ and I was a fool not to have thought of it myself, or borrowed it from Shakespeare. That was the end of my foray into translating my own work (or even writing stories), for I soon found that I could do better service to Urdu as a critic.
Q. Do you think the interest and readership for English translations of Indian literature has increased in the last five years? If so, why do you think it is happening?
Certainly the readership has grown manifold over the last decade or so. The sub-continent is now a major market for literature in English, translated from the Indian laguages or composed directly in English. The main reason for this is the unprecedented and extraordinary prestige – almost universal – of sub-continental writing in English.
The other reason is the growth of Indians who are fluent only in English. The third reason, I think, is the increased awareness among us of the literature being written in modern Indian languages. Some of the interest trickles down to pre-modern literatures too.
Q. How was the reception to the English edition of your books different from the response your fiction has received in the Urdu press?
The reception in all the languages – Urdu, Hindi, English – was warmer than I would have expected. In Urdu, there were only three unfavourable reviews, two of them on the “moral” grounds that the novel projects a “prostitute” as the central character.
In English and Hindi, the reviews and opinions can be described as fulsome. The media coverage in English was rather more extensive than in Urdu or Hindi, for obvious reasons. And the Urdu circles were already aware of my stories, so the novel came more as a natural sequel than as a discovery. In English and Hindi the sense of wonderment was greater.
Q. How would you compare Urdu literary award functions – and litfests, if they exist – to the ones that you have attended where the audience is largely English-speaking?
Urdu award or book launch functions are always formal and small, and the audience is kind of pro-forma. Litfests are something else again. The atmosphere is cordial and the audience, well informed when the festival is held in an Urdu speaking or Urdu knowing location, like Karachi or Chandigarh. But festivals like Jaipur have deteriorated into politics, showbiz, celebrity-catching, and so forth. And they’re too big to be enjoyed really. I was fortunate in Jaipur merely because the people who came to hear me were generally aware of the novel, and some of them knew it in Urdu as well.
Q. As an acclaimed writer in your own language and in the literary universe, can you comment on what it was like to be treated as a new “discovery” at the national level when The Mirror of Beauty came out in English.
I don’t know if my appearance in English should be described as a “discovery at the national level.” In any case, I was and am quite happy to be known as an Urdu writer and India is too big a country for me to have illusions about a “national” status. I was not unknown in non-Urdu circles, especially English and Hindi. Now the opening in English fiction has given me another space. But nothing more.
Q. Your writing was now being routed via English: did that feel strange in any way? Were there misreadings when people read your work without contextual understanding? Did English readers offer any new perspectives from which new insights emerged?
I am not sure that there was any miscommunication, or that the English window on my work felt strange or outlandish. I have spent a very great part of my life reading English, so the language is not really alien to me. And having written criticism in English (or translated my work from the Urdu into English), I felt quite comfortable.
I have also translated a good bit of my poetry in English and have been fortunate in having good translations of my poetry made by really competent native speakers of English too. And since I was the author and also the translator, I had no qualms about sacrificing or trading off. In effect, I wrote the novel and the stories as original English works and many readers told me that as they read the novel they felt that they were reading an Urdu work, and still, the English didn’t sound alien. I don’t know if this could have happened if someone else translated my fiction into English.
As for new insights, I feel the English readers found the world of my fiction so fascinating, the characters so compelling, that they didn’t need to find new perspectives. I think it became more a matter of identifying with the new, almost alien world depicted there.
Q. Would you say that English translations of your work have made it part of a national conversation in a way that was not true earlier?
That’s something that I can’t really comment upon. It’s possible that the novelty of the fiction and also its familiarity at some subliminal level enabled it to be welcomed. But a “national conversation” is something that I can’t even aspire to.
Q. What, for you, have been the pros and cons of being translated into English?
I think the availability of a text in another language is always desirable.
Q. What are your thoughts on Marathi writer Bhalchandra Nemade’s recent comments, dismissing Indian writing in English? Nemade has been quoted as saying “Don’t make English compulsory, make its elimination compulsory”. What do you think the role of English ought to be in our literary lives, more generally?
I haven’t given much thought to Bhalchandra’s observations. I personally would be happier if we wrote in our own languages. But the social and cultural situation in our country is such that Indian writing in English seems to have become part of our literary scene and is well set to remain so for quite sometime.
I respect Bhalchandra Nemade, and can see his point. I would be happier to see English playing a smaller, not larger role in the Indian literary culture. But literature is produced by human beings and human beings can’t but be part of a social culture. And the social culture at present seems too favourable to English.
Trisha Gupta, “Urdu was a neglected language, damned as ‘foreign’ or ‘Pakistani’: Urdu writer Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,” in Scroll, May 21, 2015. Accessed on June 8, 2015, at: http://scroll.in/article/728859/urdu-was-a-neglected-language-damned-as-foreign-or-pakistani-urdu-writer-shamsur-rahman-faruqi
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