In his Introduction, co-translator Muhammad Umar Memon writes that when Penguin asked for an author photograph and an endorsement for the back cover of the book, he realised there was barely anything written on Ikramullah in English. Ikramullah’s own response was wonderful: “Dear Mr Memon, I am not in favour of printing an author’s photograph on the book. No comments of famous writers are presently available. I do not preserve such writings.” An image and a quote were eventually found. But no wonder that I had never heard of Ikramullah before this book.
A great year for Urdu in translation
The last year in Indian publishing has been particularly good for new English translations from Urdu: in 2014, we got The Sun That Rose From the Earth, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s own translation of his story collection Savaar aur Doosre Afsaane, published in Urdu in 2001 by Aaj Ki Kitabein, a Karachi publishing house.
Also in 2014, HarperCollins brought out Rakhshanda Jalil’s translation of the legendary Intizar Husain’s stories, entitled The Death of Sheherzad. This year, there has already been a buzz around Ali Akbar Natiq, whose short stories were published by Penguin in Ali Madeeh Hashmi’s translation as What Will You Give For This Beauty? and Yoda Books’s Rococo and Other Worlds: The Poems of Afzal Ahmed Syed, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.
Many of the Urdu writers getting translated now have reached a venerable old age: Intizar Husain, who lives in Lahore, was born in UP in 1925 and migrated to Pakistan in 1947; Faruqi, who lives in Allahabad, was born in 1935; Syed was born in Ghazipur in 1946 and has lived in Karachi since 1976. Natiq – born in 1976, “in village 32/2-L near Okara” – is the youthful exception, and also the only one of these recently-translated Pakistani writers who was born in Pakistan.
Intizar Husain, Afzal Ahmed Syed and Ikramullah himself were born on this side of the border, in a pre-Partition subcontinent. At 76, Ikramullah is just a little younger than S.R. Faruqi. He was born in 1939 in Jandiala village, near Jalandhar, and finished school in Amritsar before moving with his family to Multan.
It’s always the Partition, as it must be
This biographical detail sparked my interest because both the novellas in this volume – Regret, originally Pashemaani, published in Sawa Neze Par Suraj in 1998, and Out of Sight, originally Aankh Ojhal, published in Bar-e Digar – are haunted by the Partition. And if you’re thinking, “Oh, not another Partition narrative”, let me say two things.
First, that we need many more, not just because the Partition is the most harrowing thing to have happened on this subcontinent, but because we are still far from having come to terms with its effects. The more stories we tell, the more films we make, the more memories we muster, the better. Without them, we are fooling ourselves to think we can move on.
And second, the effectiveness of this book lies in the fact that it is not “about” the Partition in any way you might imagine. In fact, you could say that neither of the novellas here is particularly invested in plot. The Partition is not picked out as grand historical tragedy – and yet the protagonists are more changed by their experience of it than by anything that happens to them since.
Regret is an affecting first-person account of a boyhood friendship. Ikramullah conjures up his world in a single summer afternoon, which begins when the narrator invites his friend Ehsaan to eat “qulcha and spicy curried grams”. (The translators’ choices here are inexplicable: “qulcha”, “aamla” and “bhang-bathu” are retained without explanation, but kofta becomes “meatball” and chhole/chane, “curried grams”.) Ehsaan “had absolutely no interest in stories”, but he inhabits the newspapers with all his imagination: a fan of Kemal Pasha and General Rommel, he is a tracker of trains, and so struck by images of the Bengal Famine that he feels like “taking off” for Bengal.
Ikramullah writes without flourish, and is a master of the telling detail: the exhausted qulfi seller dozing off in the heat, the Lala who reads the newspaper while his workers make puris, the Cold Well with crystal glasses for Hindus and Sikhs and a tin cup for Muslims, the coal-gathering Lali and Toti who have no Begum or Khanam in their names. Rioting, departures for Pakistan and negotiations for evacuee property all feature later, but the register in which Regret remains unequalled is as a discovery of class, social and political difference through children’s eyes.
Out of Sight, in contrast, takes the threat of an anti-Ahmadi riot in a Pakistani town as the trigger for an outpouring of deeply adult guilt. It is narrated in the voice of Ismail, who as a young man managed to get away to safety in Amritsar while his family and townsmen were killed in Partition violence.
This novella is a quietly persuasive account of how groups of people are incited to violence, and how the consciousness of power can incite a majority to behave with a minority. Yes, it does not have the evocative power of Regret. But this slim volume reveals a writer of courage and beauty. One hopes more of Ikramullah will come our way in English before too long.
Regret, Ikramullah, translated by Faruq Hassan and Muhammad Umar Memon, Penguin Books India, 2015.
Trisha Gupta, “With ‘Regret’, Urdu fiction in translation reveals a writer of courage and beauty,” in Scroll, June 28, 2015. Accessed on June 28, 2015, at: http://scroll.in/article/737083/with-regret-urdu-fiction-in-translation-reveals-a-writer-of-courage-and-beauty
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