A real Urdu voice

Meet the author

A real Urdu voice

Author Rakhshanda Jalil, who has written several books in English, including a collection of short stories, is increasingly focusing on bringing the concepts of secularism, contemporary Urdu poetry and literature to a wider audience. She spoke to Sunday Herald on how she plans to connect with the public:

In this fragmented world of social networking and TV, would you say you are still connecting with the public as a traditional writer?

I have recently quit work altogether. I am broke, I am unemployed and I am a fulltime writer. My interest at this point in my life is less and less to reach out and connect. I would much rather write in a certain kind of way. After sometime, the money part becomes meaningless. You become used to the fact that you are not going to make pots of money from your writing, but that your writing will mean something to a certain set of people, and I am trying to create a space. I am not interested in popular writing. Now I want to do slightly more academic writing, niche writing. I also want to do what you could call ‘language activism’.

What is the shift towards exactly?

Essentially to create a space, through writing as well as through language activism, for Urdu, in the public domain. I am interested in getting the public to understand what Urdu is about. I am trying to bust the stereotypes. That an Urdu writer doesn’t have to look like a certain person, sound like a certain person, talk of only one set of things, use only a certain set of metaphors and images. I am trying to say that Urdu literature and poetry is much more than the notions that people have: like shamma-parwana, bulbul, and the angst of the lover — that is so passé. There is much more to it than this.

Are you trying to say that the ‘Urdu way of life’ in North India that we have been exposed to in, shall I say, ‘good Hindi movies’, is not correct?

Yes. That is such a sham and bogus and completely inaccurate. I don’t know anybody going around dressed like that, talk like that. It was a stereotype that was hackneyed to begin with when Bollywood made films in the 1960s like Mere Mehboob, of college romances. They were perpetuating a romanticised version. At this point in time — I am 51 years old — I want to question stereotypes and show them in a clearer way. I am doing it through my language activism, through my organisation called Hindusthani Awaaz, which has book readings, plays, discussions, events and various other things.

What kind of writing are you focusing on now?

I am writing the biography of poet Ali Sardar Jafri. Why Jafri interests me is because he is not a typical poet. He is talking about nationalism, feminism — he was a progressive poet. My work has been on the progressive writers’ movement — in fact, my PhD was on that. So my interest has always been in these socially-engaged poets and writers. They believe that literature is a mirror of society.

I do follow and read modern writing which is more individualistic, more egoistic. But when I want to critically engage with Urdu writing of the new lot, I would much rather look at socially engaged literature, because I want to look at and understand how the creative writer is looking at society and reflecting those concerns. This biography that I am writing now is also about how the poet’s concerns are NOT about the lover or the beloved, or the desolation he feels, but they are about the world at large. So you have Jafri writing in different phases of his life — as a pacifist, as a warmonger, as a propagandist.

Your blog site says you are working on “secularism”. What does this mean exactly?

I do believe that this notion of living together separately was a fact with us for generations, for centuries. There weren’t these conflagrations. I think people were living together, separately. They had their separate identities and their festivals. They had spaces in which they met, and spaces where they did not. The notion of political correctness was not strong then. What interests me for my study — I am hoping to get some sort of institutional support for this — is that our idea of secularism is different from, say, the French idea of secularism…or the European notion of secularism.

You are also a translator — when you translate from Urdu to English, how difficult is it with certain phrases and dialects?

You cannot think that you can do a 100 per cent transfer of images, ideas, metaphors, thoughts — you can’t do that. The act of translation requires a certain humility on the part of the translator, because it is a given that there will be a loss, and you have to work around that loss. When I am translating Shehryar Fazli or Intezar Hussain or Premchand, I don’t think I have to write in Queen’s English — I think it’s alright to carry through some words, some rhythms, and some intonations…

But there is this thin line between the copy being appropriate and ‘pidgin’ English…
Yes, it is a very thin line. It is our (translators’) good sense, our discretion that makes us walk that thin line. We are sometimes conscious. There is also this constant battle with young copy editors in publishing companies who want to flatten out your sentence by telling you that it is grammatically this or that! And I am saying to them, ‘Look, I also studied English literature, there is nothing wrong with my grammar, I am deliberately keeping it like this because I want there to be some sort of approximation.’

Fortunately, there is a generation of translators who are becoming even more confident of themselves. And I think we are shedding that old colonial construct, which made us say ‘clarified butter’ for ghee and that sort of thing. We were lumbering up our sentences, because we were worried that they would not understand our sentences!

How is the short story scene in India faring?

My feeling is that short stories in India, in different languages, are coming into their own. They are seen as a viable publishing option because they are likely to sell more than novels. More short stories are being written than novels. I know for a fact that in Urdu no major novel is being written — more short stories are being written than ever before. I think the short story as a genre can never be done away with. I think it’s a nice combination between byte-sized information of this IT age, and a novel.

As a genre, there is a beautiful geometric precision about the short story. There is the beginning, middle and the end, with the sting at the end. Then there are the abstract short stories which are like essays. I think it allows different kinds of expressions — so it allows different kinds of writing — abstract, ‘stream of consciousness’, conventional with the sting at the end — I think they are flowering, and it’s a very  good thing that they are.

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