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C.M. Naim in Conversation

By Fahad Hashmi

C.M. Naim is Professor Emeritus of Urdu studies at the University of Chicago. He taught Urdu language and literature in the department of South Asian Languages and Civilisation, University of Chicago. He co-founded Mahfil (The Journal of South Asian Literature) in 1963 and the Annual of Urdu Studies in 1981. Besides a good number of works to his credit, he has also translated Qurratulain Hyder’s Housing society, Patjhad ki Awaz, and Sitaharan which is A Season of Betrayals in its English version; Vibhuti Narayan Rai’s Shahar mein curfew as Curfew in the City; and Harishankar Parsai’s satirical sketches as Inspector Matadeen on the Moon: Selected Satires.

This conversation was conducted through email. 

Fahad Hashmi: What sort of prose and poetry are being produced in the Urdu language in academies and government aided-centres, meant for the promotion of the language in India?

C.M. Naim: The state academies do not produce much on their own; they mostly facilitate publication of books written or edited by someone within the state. They also give awards. As for the major ‘Central’ organization, the National Council for the Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), it has been doing fairly good work: publication of inexpensive editions of classical texts; keeping prices down of their own other publications; holding book exhibitions and sales in major cities across the country; subsidizing publication of research work done by scholars at various places, and probably much more. You may want to check their website to see their various projects. I have only listed the things that I have noted myself. It also publishes a magazine, but I don’t read it regularly.

FH: The Annual of Urdu Studies was an important beacon of light amidst hard times for Urdu and Urduwallahs. The Annual stopped publication in 2014. Shamsur Rehman Faruqi’s highbrow literary magazine Shabkhoon could not win the imagination of Urduwallahs for long. How do you see such closure in the larger context of the world of Urdu?

CMN: Faruqi’s Shabkhoon was hardly highbrow, unless you believe every Urdu journal should be like Shabistan Digest. In any case, Shabkhoon lasted more than four decades, if I’m not mistaken. Its closure was sad, because it was a monthly magazine, a rarity in Urdu literary area for decades. Equally sad was the closure of Kitab (Lucknow), another monthly, much earlier. Then Sha’ir (Bombay) lost its editor and disappeared, sort of. The three were very important, since literary monthlies had more or less stopped in Pakistan. As for the AUS [the Annual of Urdu Studies], it can still be revived if some younger people run it as a net-magazine. In fact, that would be the ideal solution. Had all this been of any importance to the Urduwallahs, they would have done something to correct the situation. At least some of them out of the ‘millions’, who adore Urdu. Apparently, the matter is of little import. There are quite a few literary quarterlies in both India and Pakistan; they are not having any easy time. Urduwallahs don’t buy books or journals in the same manner that their grandfathers did. Though even then, the biggest edition of any book seldom was of more than 2000 copies. That has been the reality of Urdu.

FH: You have translated Vibhuti Narayan Rai’s Shahar mein curfew as Curfew in the City, and Qurratulain Hyder’s Housing society, Patjhad ki awaz, and Sitaharan which is A Season of Betrayals in its English avatar. Your have written in the introduction of the latter book that the translation does not sufficiently convey the original meaning. How do you see this project of translation? In this enterprise, what is ‘lost and gained in translation’?

CMN: Sorry, but I only translate; I do not teach translation theory. Nor do I have the far greater experience of Prof. M U Memon, who is doubtless our best translator. You should direct that question to him.

FH: One of your concerns has been the production as well as perpetuation of bias towards certain communities in Urdu journalism. And you have been writing on it in the Outlook magazine and some other places. In Urdu journalism, Ahmadiyas and Jews are easy scapegoats. Urdu papers resort to conspiracy theories very easily.  What’s your opinion on the state of Urdu journalism in India?

CMN: I do glance through at least two Urdu newspapers from India every day. And, yes, they do an awful job when it comes to certain subjects. They have to cater to their readers. Some are published as sectarian organs. One or two are for the purpose of reaching out to Muslim voters in big cities. But, as a whole, it remains a lively world. What it badly lacks is support from Urdu speaking social scientists and trained journalists in the English medium. Anglophone Urduwallahs grumble but don’t even bother to read Urdu newspapers. Let’s keep in mind that only a rare non-Muslim now reads an Urdu newspaper. That allows a freedom to say anything. Then there is the matter of plagiarism as discussed only today, on the blog, by a young Indian scholar. Journalists steal from English and Urdu writings of others and then publish them as their own, and editors do not mind.

FH: One could say with ease that the emergence of Dastangoi in its new avatar and that of Rekhta in contemporary India are helping Urdu in giving a new lease of life to it. Your observations.

CMN: What is this ‘new lease of life’ business? Jashn-e Rekhta is held in Delhi. How does it give a new lease of life to Urdu in Lucknow, Patna, or Rampur, not to mention Jharkand or Bhopal? The new Dastangoi is a wonderful development. But then a similar role has long been played by ‘Hindi’ films.

FH: One of the concerns in Indian academia has been plagiarism that is eating into its very vitals. The world of Urdu is no exception to plagiarism. It has been on your mind, too. How could it be checked, if not completely abolished?

CMN: Plagiarism in Urdu is not limited to the academia, as the above-mentioned article would indicate. Plagiarims cannot be abolished. It has not been abolished in English. Internet has made it easier. One can only create ways to check and detect it. I pointed out the plagiarism done by Qazi Abdus Sattar in his book on Aesthetics, and confirmed Dr. Gopichand Narang’s plagiarism that was pointed out by Imran Bhindar and others.

FH: The radical shift that Sir Syed had made from the earlier style of Urdu writing is a cut off mark in the history of Urdu. The project of modernisation that Sir Syed had struggled for and wanted to usher in through the Tehzeeb-ul-akhlaq could not take off. Your thoughts.

CMN: Plain and simple Urdu prose, if that is what you have in mind, was written before Sir Syed – by Mir Amman and Mirza Ghalib. The practice of writing Urdu that was not adorned with literary flourishes and conceits and that was the hallmark of the writings of Sir Syed, Zakaullah, Nazir Ahmad, Altaf Husain Hali, and in a sense even Muhammad Husain Azad, did not die with them. It continued. As for the project of ‘Modernization’ not taking off, I see no evidence of it. Unless you have something else in mind.

Fahad Hashmi
is an independent researcher, who holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Delhi, India. He regularly writes on political Islam, issues of minorities, and on other issues of political and social concerns.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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