Jamadi Thani / Rajab 1425 H July 2004
Volume 17-07 No : 211
Camps \ Workshops
Men, Missions and Machines
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Muhammad Umar Memon, as publisher of the Annual of Urdu Studies Journal
Words like Kashmir and Taliban have jolted American attention to the region of South Asia. UW-Madison Professor, Muhammad Umar Memon hopes that focus can spread to the more delicate words of the region’s rich culture, especially Urdu, a language spoken by millions of people in India and across the world. His “Mission” aims to raise the awareness of Urdu in the West.
Memon is the publisher of the Annual of Urdu Studies, the only English-language journal discussing Urdu. In 1993, Memon took the editorship for the publication that is now based out of an office in Van Hise Hall.
Urdu Studies is a publication of Wisconsin University, whose Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia manages to bring it out annually under the editorship of M.U. Memon. The latest issue is its 13th issue. During these years, the journal has gradually come to stay as an organ playing the role of introducing Urdu literature to the English-knowing literary world of the West in a serious way. And what a journal! With each issue we feel inducted into an assembly of scholars belonging to different countries of the West and East, pre-occupied in the critical study of Urdu literary tradition in its manifold forms.
He said: “The Annual has basically three types of readership: the general scholarly community, Urdu speakers in the West, and scholars of Urdu in the sub-continent.”
The main thrust of the journal is not creative literature, like the literature in translation course Memon teaches at UW-Madison on Urdu prose, but rather it is a more comprehensive scholarly work on Urdu humanities.
“It is the only source for those with a very strong interest in the health and life of the language and its literature, and offers certain perspectives that are not native,” he said. Memon began his work in the area many years ago and his efforts now are finally beginning to bear fruit. He sets such a high standard because as an author himself, he cares so much—agonising over the translation of just a single image or phrase.
Memon calls UW-Madison’s 45-year-old Department of Languages and Culture of Asia, “one of the major places of study on South Asia in the United States.” “Our library resources are in the top four or five in the country,” he said.
Urdu is one of the four South Asian languages taught regularly at UW-Madison. Centuries ago, there was little distinction between Urdu and the spoken forms of Hindi, a language widely spoken in India. British imperialists began to differentiate the two, giving the Arabic scripted language the name Urdu, or “camp language,” as an attempt to separate the language and Muslims, from the rest of the Indian sub-continent.
Memon, a native of India, said he longed for an increased interest in Urdu and the region. “One should have a healthy interest in other cultures for their own sake, with the assumption that there will be a difference,” Memon said. “I would rather have Americans choose to study other languages and cultures than have some terrorist force them to pay attention to the differences. That’s a very negative way, but maybe the end result will be positive.”
So, in the present issue, Stephanie Lonsdale, who studied English philology in Barcelona University and later developed interest in South Asian literature, has chosen to make a study of Hajra Masroor’s short story Bhag Bhari, in the light of its social background. And Valerio Peintrangelo, coming from the University of Rome will be seen here discussing the theme of social situation of women as treated by male writers in Urdu, and later picked up by female writers who were now seen asserting in the fields of fiction and poetry.
Amina Yaqin from London University scrutinizes Anita Desai’s treatment of Urdu in her novel, In Custody. The way the novelist depicts the situation of Urdu in post-Partition India leads her to conclude that “Urdu is destined to wither away in the stultifying heat of summer, unable to sustain the hopeful beginning of spring.” And Amina Yaqin ends her analysis by saying that “Desai’s symbolism is tinged with the troupes of a communally-charged present, unable to break out of the fragmentary Hindu-Hindi and Muslim-Urdu divide despite her staging the debates within the ‘secular’ Indian-English novel.”
Shamsurrahman Farooqi’s article deals with what has been termed as Sabak-i-Hindi, which includes Persian poetry, specially ghazal “written mostly from the 16th century onwards by Indian and Iranian poets, the latter term to include poets of Iranian origin, who spent long periods of their creative life in India.”
But perhaps more important is the long section devoted to the study of Mohammad Hasan Askari done jointly by M.U. Memon and Mehr Afshan Farooqi, who at present is an assistant professor of Urdu at the University of Virginia. Mehr Afshan has focused on what Askari wrote between 1940 and 1955, and has translated a number of critical articles written during this period. It was during this period that Askari dominated the literary scene as a critic and fought a number of battles in defence of literary values as he had understood them.
The later period has been covered by Memon. While discussing this phase of Askari’s life, he has reproduced in English translation a number of articles written during this period. With complete indifference to contemporary literary situation, he was now pre-occupied with the questions which belonged to the domains of tasawwuf and Islamic thought.
Mehr Afshan regrets at what she imagines “his omission from the wider scholarly discussion of modern Urdu literature” and his marginalisation because of his confrontation with the progressive writers’ movement. The actual situation is that soon after his death, he came under heavy attack because of his little book published posthumously under the title Jadidyat ya Maghribi Gumrahiyon ki Tareekh. In consequence, a heated controversy flared up. So once again, he was a controversial figure for years to come, compelling Urdu readers involved in ideas and ideologies to react for or against him.
Along with the critical studies of Urdu writers and writings, we have a section devoted to the English translations of Urdu writings. It includes translations of short stories of Prem Chand, Ghulam Abbas, Hajra Masroor and Ikramullah. Add to it the translation of a character sketch by Qudratullah Shahab.
We find a few Urdu writings at the tail-end of this bulky volume. They carry with them questions relevant to our time. Scholars around the world have come to depend on Memon and his publication, which specialises in Urdu, a language with several hundred million speakers, mainly in India and Pakistan. Although the language is still somewhat unknown in the United States, Urdu’s profile has received a boost as the world’s focus shifts to South Asia and native speakers and signs bearing Urdu script pop up on CNN.
To Memon, who was born in Aligarh, it is gratifying to see recognition of the language and culture he has dedicated his life, to advancing. “Urdu is my mother tongue and the love of my life” Memon says.
Men, Missions and Machines