The National Language
Several of the pieces in our Pakistan issue were translated from the national language, Urdu, which boasts a rich literary history. Ollie Brock spoke to two of our contributors to discover their epxerience of literature in Urdu, and which writers we should be paying more attention to.
Uzma Aslam Khan
OB: You grew up in Karachi, which held its first literature festival earlier this year, following a growing worldwide interest in Pakistani writing in English. Is Urdu literature being overlooked? Should we be seeing more of it in translation?
UAK: Outside the subcontinent, Urdu literature is deeply overlooked. We should absolutely be seeing more translations in English. But this is not true only for Urdu. The indigenous languages – such as Sindhi, Seraiki, Punjabi, Balochi, and Pashto, to name just a few – are even more overlooked, even within Pakistan, though they existed on the soil that became Pakistan long before Urdu or English did.
Who, in your view, is the single greatest writer in Urdu (living or dead)?
It’s Urdu poetry that I love best, more than Urdu prose. (And more than poetry in English, which, with a few exceptions, lacks the immediacy with which I feel poetry in Urdu.) If I had to single out one poet, it would have to be Faiz Ahmad Faiz. There’s no other artist who’s captured the range of human emotion more beautifully and heart-wrenchingly than Faiz. I still remember my first experience of not only listening to his poetry but actually understanding it, and this was while hearing his two oft-quoted poems ‘Hum dekhainge’ ‘Urdu gives me two languages to love and curse in.’ (‘We will see ‘) and ‘Dashte tanhai me’ (‘In the Desert of Loneliness’) sung by the amazing Iqbal Bano. The songs were playing in our home in the 1980s, during General Zia’s military rule, and many of those present who were singing with Iqbal Bano were also crying. Later, my father asked if I understood the poems, the first of which was a fiery and optimistic call to change, the second of which was a lament of loss and separation. I felt I did understand them, but I let him explain that celebration and mourning, love and despair, in Pakistan, are two things that are never separated. If that was true in the eighties, it’s no less true today, possibly, it’s even truer, which is why Faiz continues to matter, continues to be remembered, and continues to make us sing and cry.
What books in Urdu have most influenced your writing?
Aside from Faiz’s poetry, it’s the fiction of Saadat Hasan Manto that made the deepest impression. The association is once again with my father. Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ was my closest glimpse of the scars of Partition that my father never shared with us. His family came to Lahore in 1947 from a tiny village near Amritsar; his grandparents were beheaded before his mother’s eyes. I think he let his children see his past through reading ‘Toba Tek Singh’, a satirical account of the inmates of a mental asylum who have nowhere to go at Partition, but are forever left in limbo, between Pakistan and India.
The story made me deeply suspicious of easy categorization, particularly along ethnic and religious lines. It also made me understand that I come from a country that wasn’t shaped by those who migrated to it, like my parents, nor by the many indigenous tribes who’d lived there long before any one presumed to scratch lines across their land. Mine is the first generation of writers to be born in Pakistan, so, like my parents, I also carry the weight of beginning. The need to look in Pakistan’s looking-glass and know the slippery ghosts of my history has been imperative for me as a writer. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped hungering to know my place in these chaotic layers. It’s the hunger to make up for what was never said. It’s the terror of being left as voiceless as the inmates of the asylum.
Does Urdu give you something that non-speakers will never quite get?
Well, it gives me two languages to play with in my writing. It also gives me two languages to love and curse in. For instance, when I first got married, and my non-Urdu-speaking husband and I would quarrel, I would frequently revert to Urdu. Now he understands much of it, unfortunate at times, but fortunate when we listen to Iqbal Bano.
OB: In your piece in our Pakistan issue you describe arriving in England as a teenager, and immersing yourself in books and films. Did books in Urdu form part of these initiations?
Apart from the poetry of Faiz, which I read in a bilingual edition, I had no exposure to Urdu literature in London until I was about nineteen, when I was sent to a private tutor to relearn the language, in which I sat an A level when I was about twenty, in order to enter university to study Persian (which uses a variation of the same script).
It’s clearly become very important to you since - you contribute to the Annual of Urdu studies. Is Urdu literature a resource we’re overlooking in the English-speaking world? Should we be seeing more of it in translation?
At university, I studied the canon of Urdu poetry, with a focus on eighteenth and nineteenth-century classics. But traditional Urdu poetry, which depends heavily on rhyme and meter, is almost untranslatable, partly because of very different syntactical rules from English.
Realist fiction in the sense we recognise it came to Urdu late, and we studied only a few examples of it. I developed an interest in it in the early nineties; I’d already almost completed my first book, so I can’t say it was an influence on me as a writer, but I’ve read hundreds of contemporary short stories and dozens of novels, and think there are some fine examples, particularly of the former.
I don’t think we’ve had as many good translations as we deserve, but there are several competent translators in Pakistan, India and the States. One of the greatest Urdu writers of the 20th century, Qurratulain Hyder, who began her career in Pakistan in the 40s and moved back to India in 1960, actually translated several of her own works into English including her magnum opus River of Fire. They’ve been published in the States by New Directions. Manto is known, too. Some of Pakistan’s finest, like Intizar Hussain and Fahmida Riaz, haven't been as well served and still remain almost entirely unknown except to specialist audiences.
If realist fiction came later, what were the myths that dominated until then? Nadeem Aslam’s novella which opens our issue, ‘Leila in the Wilderness’, is a retelling of the story of separated lovers Leila and Qes. How important is myth to Urdu culture?
I’d say legend (rather than myth) is crucial to all the Pakistani languages. The story of Laila and Majnun (‘The Mad’, as Qais was known) is one we borrowed from Arabic via Persian, and it is part of our imagination. Rumi wrote many beautiful verses about them. There are other cultural imports, too, like the pre-Islamic Persian story of Shirin and Farhad; Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, a much-elaborated story via the Quran from the Old Testament, which is retold in various versions (including my own story, ‘The Lost Cantos of the Silken Tiger’). On home ground we have the folk legends of the Indus, immortalised by Shah Abdul Latif in his mystical poems, including those of Umar and Marvi and Sassi and Punhal from my native Sind (Marvi is alluded to in my forthcoming novel, The Cloud Messenger, and novelist Bina Shah evokes several of them in her last novel).
When print culture began to thrive in the nineteenth century, the epic cycles and old romances began to be transcribed in prose and were recorded in book form in definitive versions. Among these are the The Tale of Amir Hamza and The Four Dervishes, which is a favourite of mine. They're recently enjoying a new and enchanted readership in English.
So it seems a good thing that they were put into print. But does this erode the oral culture they came from? Is it possible that these ‘definitive versions’ suggest a fixed origin for myths, a sort of national ownership that is in fact false - as they are products of that mingling that you mention?
I think ‘transcribed’ was an inaccurate word: the correct terms (note the plural) should be, variously, collated, edited, collected and retold, because that’s how the print versions were constructed. Ours is a culture that places great emphasis on the written word. There’s an assumption that storytellers worked from manuscripts, some of them in Persian. Some may have been memorized by amateur narrators and professional storytellers, others were simply read out from handwritten scripts.
See also... our cover for the issue, a special commission made to Karachi-based truck artist Islam Gull. Web exclusives include an animation based on the issue’s artwork, and ‘Road to Chitral’ – Azhar Abidi’s travelogue and meditation on Pakistan’s cycle of violence. For our podcasts, which include episodes with Nadeem Aslam and Sarfraz Manzoor, go here.