Interview with Muhammad Umar Memon - A must read for those with interest in Urdu literature

Muhammad Umar Memon
Interview with Muhammad Umar Memon By Anjum Dawood Alden
Madison, Wisconsin, January 14, 2009

Learning a new language is not just a matter of learning the semantics and linguistic structure of a new dialect, but it is also a discovery of the culture that surrounds that language. In some cases, it can even be a rediscovery of a culture. I grew up in Karachi, Pakistan and went to a school that taught Urdu as a second language. Our daily classes were primarily conducted in English. Urdu was often taught to us in a completely different way than English. Teachers relied heavily on verbal drills, memorization and uninspiring reading opportunities. I never mastered my own mother tongue in Pakistan because I found it boring and tiresome to study. Also, it was never encouraged as such. At home nearly all my school friends and I spoke English with our families. English was always considered superior on many levels. We were all very comfortable, in school, performing from English Plays such as “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Macbeth” but never did much in Urdu on that level. Ironically, it was not until I left Pakistan to study Linguistics in Madison, Wisconsin and met Professor Memon that I truly started to appreciate Urdu and discover the wealth of my culture and history.

Professor Memon is an Urdu scholar who had also studied both Persian and Arabic, two of the languages Urdu is primarily derived from. He could explain the root of any Urdu word, he could explain idiom and diction and most importantly, he could articulate to us how Urdu was a very oral language and didn’t always make “sense” in the way we would expect from more Western languages.

It was a life changing experience for me and the students studying with me. Many of my colleagues were Pakistani Americans who had lived in the United States all their lives and had never formally studied Urdu. We all learnt to appreciate the richness and diversity of the Urdu language with Professor Memon. And in so doing, we learnt a lot about our culture. We were shocked to discover how the literature was so liberal and expressive, tackling such topics as socialism, existentialism, feminism and even homosexuality, in a very thought provoking and, at times, very graphic way. We were especially surprised to see how many other students with no direct links to Pakistan found Urdu to be a fascinating language and often put us to shame by speaking it a lot more fluently than we ever could! It made us appreciate our roots and our heritage with a pride we had never felt before.

Professor Memon has spent the 38 years of his teaching career in Madison, Wisconsin greatly impacting the lives of his students with his passion and enthusiasm for Urdu. He has tirelessly worked with other Urdu scholars from around the world to create an academic blueprint for Urdu discussions and research through his brilliant journal, “Annual of Urdu Studies.” He has translated numerous Urdu fiction works into English, thereby opening up the world of Urdu by making its fiction accessible to a much wider audience. He has also taught many courses on Islam and Sufism that were just as enriching and instructive in their own right. Professor Memon is now retired from his teaching in Madison. He spends his retirement working on numerous translations and on his “Annual of Urdu Studies” journal. I was honored to sit with him, recently, and ask him some questions about his career and passions.


Q. Tell me a little about your background and how you came to where you are today.

A. The answer to the first part of your question is probably easier. If I knew “where I am today” I might find that easier to answer too. But where am I? I sometimes feel that I’m one of those people who’s always on the way but never arrives anywhere. Life is a work-in-progress. One doesn’t arrive but merely plods along through a continuum, its terminal points on either side forever obscured in the blue haze of the distance. It is both a weighty and an ambiguous question. Does a person really know where he has come, if he has come anywhere at all? Then again, arrival spells the end, death, at least figuratively.
I was born at Aligarh in 1939 to the only Memon family in town. My father was professor of Arabic at the university there. Nothing in my childhood or boyhood is compelling enough to merit revisiting. It was an average life of an ordinary boy with ordinary classmates. Following my father’s retirement in 1954, we moved to Karachi, where I did my B.A. Honors and M.A. and taught first at Sachal Sarmast College and later at Sind University, both in Hyderabad. By then I had been writing short stories in Urdu and had had some modest success as a writer. In 1964 I received a Fulbright scholarship to study at Harvard University. I finished my M.A. there a year later and then proceeded to do a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at UCLA, simultaneously teaching Urdu. I met my wife Nakako in Cambridge where she too had come on a Fulbright from Tokyo University to continue her studies in Chinese history.
Q: Have you been happy with the responses to your translations? Have the Urdu writers you’ve translated, at least those who are still alive, appreciated the increased exposure you’ve given them?

A. Actually, “happy” doesn’t come into the picture. Serious reviews are the only way to know how one’s efforts have been received. My anthologies or translations of individual authors have been reviewed in the U.S., but not extensively. A few reviews of one book, Naiyer Masud’s Essence of Camphor (The New Press, New York), did appear here. They were generally positive, especially the ones in the Boston Globe and Kirkus Reviews. For some reason, in the U.S. there seems to be a conspicuous lack of interest in world literature, especially non-Western literature. The situation is better in Europe. For instance, compared to the U.S., the percentage of translations from non-Western languages is much higher, say, in France and Italy. I was quite surprised when Essence of Camphor was translated into Finnish and French.

Most of the readership for my translations is in India, not Pakistan, even though the greater part of my translation work showcases work by Pakistani Urdu writers. Last August Penguin published Do You Suppose It’s The East Wind? Stories from Pakistan, which is a selection of Urdu stories I translated. Chandrahas Choudhury reviewed it in The Middle Stage and Satyanarayana in Tehelka. They are very positive reviews, but what struck me the most was the absence of any tentativeness or dismissal or hubris or superior air in the reviewer’s attitude, the kind one frequently sees in reviews and columns in Pakistani newspapers. Instead, there was a healthy curiosity and welcoming spirit in which the reviewer approached the body of fictional literature emanating from the other side of the border. So it can be said that my efforts have received a degree of appreciation.

Do Urdu writers I translate appreciate my work? I don’t know. They don’t tell me. A few have thanked me though. That said, I know that today Intizar Husain and Naiyer Masud are not totally obscure names among those in U.S. academia with an interest in South Asian Studies. Maybe this is due to my translations. One time an Australian professor, whose scholarly focus is mainly on South India, was in Lahore and saw my translation of Intizar Husain’s collection of stories An Unwritten Epic in some bookstore. These stories impressed him enough to write an excellent article on Intizar Husain and later publish it in a highly acclaimed professional journal.

Likewise Alok Bhalla once came to Madison to see me and told me that he had discovered Intizar Husain through my translations. He was so impressed by Husain’s work that he translated, with the help of a collaborator who knew Urdu, a series of Husain stories that are modeled after the stories of Mahatma Buddha’s rebirths (jatakas) but with a contemporary twist.
Q. What do you think about the future of the Urdu language? Some say it is a dying language. Do you agree? If so, what, in your opinion, needs to be done to make it a more dynamic language?

A. I don’t dabble in clairvoyance. Who can say anything about the future? Still I don’t think that Urdu will die in Pakistan. But let us first deal with its current situation in India.

You must have often heard that Urdu is a Muslim language. This is a mistaken and largely politically motivated notion. There is absolutely no inextricable link between language and religion. A person would do well to disabuse themselves of this notion. It is an Indian language and did not carry a Muslim identity tag until the British somehow foisted a Muslim identity on it to create discord between the Hindus and Muslims, all in an effort to perpetuate their stranglehold on India. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi has cogently and forcefully argued for its Indian origins in his highly acclaimed work Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (Oxford). Until 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned, India never suffered from a dearth of Hindu and Sikh writers of Urdu. In the first half of the twentieth-century, among the three most celebrated fiction writers in Urdu, one was a Kashmiri Hindu (Krishan Chander), one a Sikh (Rajindar Singh Bedi), and one a Muslim (Saadat Hasan Manto). Earlier, Munshi Premchand wrote in an Urdu few Pakistanis could match today. Among the poets I can cite several, but Chakbast and Firaq Gorakhpuri should suffice.

Well, the British succeeded. Both Hindus and Muslims bought into their fiction. Now a single language came in two different packages, one for Hindus (Hindi) and another for Muslims (Urdu). So, from a purely nationalistic point of view, Urdu has no place in India. It is recognized in the Indian Constitution but is slowly atrophying due to politics and neglect—neglect largely on the part of the Indian Muslim community. You may blame the Indian government for the sorry state of Urdu in India all you want, but really the Muslim community is largely responsible for shirking its responsibility. If you claim to own it, you must preserve it. It is as simple as that. Why always ask the government to do everything? Why not do what little you can? Very little evidence is forthcoming of any organized effort to keep Urdu alive and develop it further. By this I do not mean any government-sponsored activity, but any initiative coming from the Urdu community itself. On the contrary, Indian Muslims would rather have their children taught English and Hindi because of the greater opportunities for economic betterment that such learning promises. In the U.S. I personally know two Indian Muslims coming from highly cultured Urdu families who can write Urdu only in roman or Hindi script

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