I am currently re-reading Shame. Last I read it, I was maybe 17 or 18. I remember liking parts of it and not understanding any of it. It is an insider novel, drowning in in-jokes, self-allusions, winks and sad nods. I never realized how sad it is – Rushdie pokes into the narrative (in a rather laborious and “showing the seams” kind of way) and just laments those that made this country of shameless religiosity possible. A number of times, he mentions that it isn’t Pakistan but a country set at an angle to it. Evoking the sin or shame in the apocryphal Peccavi, Rushdie tagged shame itself as the generative force at the heart of Pakistan.1 That conceit holds, for a while, but falls apart in the middle of the novel, and it has fallen apart outside of it. I don’t think shame or honor appear in public or private discourses, as the driving cultural forces in or about Pakistan. That takalluf generation, which sparked Rushdie’s imagination, is not around much these days.

The pun Peccavi – I have Sind/Sinned – works with an understanding of shame coupled with the acquisition of a particular piece of geography (of the state of Sindh that contains Karachi in current day Pakistan). This pun of conquest has long been attributed to Charles Napier, but in fact he never said it. Indeed, the notion of sin did not enter into the emotional registers which informed his actions. Charles Napier (1782-1853) was a hermit-turned-warrior, heady with the crusading spirit that afflicted some of the veterans of the European wars of early 19th century. He was clear that the common people of Sindh (Hindus or Muslims) had to be “saved” from the despotic Muslim Mirs of Talpur. Whether there was just cause or not, Sindh had to be taken by the East India Company (EIC), and redemption – for him, as a great General, for the EIC, as a civilizing force, and for Sindh, as a country rendered anew in the Faith – awaited.

I made up my mind that although war had not been declared (nor is it necessary to declare it), I would at once march upon Imangurh and prove to the whole Talpur family of both Khyrpor and Hyderabad that neither their deserts, nor their negotiations can protect them from the British troops. The Ameers will fly over the Indus, and we shall become masters of the left bank of the river from Mitenkote to the mouth; peace with civilization will then replace war and barbarism. My conscience will be light, for I see no wrong in so regulating a set of tyrants who are themselves invaders, and have in sixty years nearly destroyed the country. The people hate them.2

In Napier’s view, a particular violence and terror haunted the valleys of Sindh. It was the Muslim menace in power – the Mirs were the “greatest ruffians,” “imbeciles,” possessing “zenanas filled with young girls torn from their friends, and treated when in the hareem with revolting barbarity,” and even prone to enjoying the occasional human “sacrifice”. His civilizing mission, for which he invented a casus belli, was to counter this terror and violence. The East India Company, and later the Raj, clung to this reading of the Sindh principality, declaring several “Wars On” dacoits, thugs, criminal tribes and the like – the terrorism of Pir Pagaro’s Hur being a late example portrayed in the former British administrator H.T. Lambrick’s novel, The Terrorist (1972).

This violence which was projected onto and into the Sindhis by the colonial voice masked, however, the colonial violence itself. The violence of breaking treaties established since 1801, of invasions, the killing and capturing of a principality on false pretenses (the Mirs were accused of seeking a conspiratorial connection with the Russians or the Afghanis against the EIC). The terror is clear in the dispatches of the Mirs – plaintively begging for some credence from the British for their legitimacy, for their rule. They know that they cannot do anything to stop the British troops and their appeals to past treaties and past promises are all couched in the voice of honor, respect (and shame). “We” had a treaty, will you not honor it? The Mirs had already seen the violence.
Continue reading “Peccavistan”

  1. btw, I have since that long-ago post solved the mystery of who said it, and where. Exposé soon []
  2. William F. P. Napier, The Life and Opinions of General Sir Charles James Napier vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1857), 275. []

Atiya Fyzee

I have been doing some translation work on Shibli Naumani for a small project. He was a major historian of early Islam who published seminal works in the early 20th century. He was also a committed reformist who wanted to modernize “Muslim” education. But reading around on him, I got to read his letters to Atiya Fyzee. That is her in the photo above, seated center. It is taken from a work of musicology that came out in 1925, The Music of India.

The daughter of Haji Hasan Ali Afandi, she was born in Istanbul in 1876 (d. 1967) and was the first Muslim woman to go to London for higher education, to pen a travelogue/memoir of her time abroad, to forcefully advocate for gender equality, to write on musicology, to become a muse for Shibli and for Iqbal. She is now largely forgotten (and mis-remembered since that article confuses her with her sister. Delacy in the comments!).

In 1906, Atiya Fyzee left her home city of Bombay to spend a year studying at a teacher’s training college in London. She was certainly not the first Muslim woman to travel to Britain, but she certainly was the first to have penned her observations of Europe. Her travelogue (Roznamchah) was firstly serialized in the Urdu women’s journal, Tahzib un-Niswan from Lahore, then published in book form under the title Zamana-i-tahsil [A Time of Education] in 1921.

That remarkable journal is now translated into English by our very own Sunil Sharma and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley as Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain.

They are also interviewed by WSJ here:

IRT: As historians, what brought each of you to her?

Lambert-Hurley: Atiya was an extremely fiery, colorful and accomplished woman—all characteristics that make her a very attractive subject for the feminist historian! Until the final years of her life, she was also relentlessly itinerant, traveling on numerous occasions to and across three continents—Asia, Europe and the Americas. This peripatetic quality made Atiya especially interesting to me, first of all, as a scholar interested in travel and travel literature as a means of recovering the Muslim female as an actor in world history.

Sharma: As a literary historian, I was drawn by Atiya the muse who figured in the lives of two prominent figures of Persian and Urdu literature. She inspired the venerable Maulana Shibli Numani to write numerous ghazals (ballads) in Persian that included a veiled reference to her. Iqbal, who is thought to have been besotted with her, also wrote a lyrical poem inspired by her. Their letters to her—her letters to them do not survive or have not been made public—are amazing documents in the history of friendship.


Needless to say, I have been waiting for this translation to come out for a few years and now cannot wait to have my copy. Also, now maybe we can request Prof. Sharma to return to the eleventh to the fourteenth century where we really, really need him.

Madison 2010

As documented previously – here, and here (here) – there is a great gathering of all South Asianists at UW-Madison every October. This will be gathering # 39. I have two panels – one of which is “Fractured Genres: The Afterlives of Medieval Indo-Persian Histories” and the other one “Blogs of War: The Analytical Terrain of the Af-Pak Blogosphere“.

Come see.

Rather related is this Greatest Video of All Times, courtesy of Mircea: Homi Bhabha + Katy Perry.

Literary Striptease

“Translation for me stems from two different but interrelated impulses: a good text matures for the reader with every reading, reveals itself gradually—call it literary striptease. I can delve into it only through extended togetherness. Translation makes it possible to tease out all I can through this prolonged intimacy. The other insatiable impulse is to uncover my own potential.”

Muhammad Umar Memon is a translator, editor of the Annual of Urdu Studies and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Indefatigable, irascible, dapper and demonstrative, Memon Sahib is a well known and hard to miss figure in South Asian literary circles in the US. He is also easily the single most productive translator of Urdu literature into English. His translations include the recent collection of Urdu short stories from Pakistan, Do You Suppose it’s the East Wind?, two collections of short stories by the great Indian author Naiyer Masud, a collection of short stories relating to the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, and many, many more. Most recently, Memon Sahib guest edited the September issue of Words Without Borders, offering us a rich selection of Indian Urdu writing. If I were a writer for the New Yorker, I would have flown out to Madison to interview Memon Sahib. The interview would include a leisurely description of his attire, his demeanor and perhaps even his facial hair. Alas, as a poor blogger, we must content ourselves with an email interview, and hope that the interviewee’s enthusiasm for his craft comes across despite my failure to describe his socks and shoes.

Lapata: When and why did you first start translating literature?

Memon Sahib: Following Indian partition in 1947 some writers—Surendar Parkash and Balraj Manra in India, Enver Sajjad and also, to a degree, myself in Pakistan—were experimenting with starkly unconventional forms of fictional narrative. I liked my friend Balraj’s stories quite a bit. He had crammed tons of Sartre and Camus and inclined heavily toward the philosophy of the “absurd.” I decided to translate a few of his stories, among them “The Match Box,” which was later reprinted in Short Story International (New York) [also published in Balraj Manra, The Altar, (Delhi: Writers Forum, 1966), 9–16]. And that was that. Years later, a practical necessity drove me to translate extensively from modern Urdu fiction. It was 1970, I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin and curricular needs prompted me to translate since I could find few good translations of Urdu fiction.

Lapata: How do you choose what to translate? Do you just pick stories with which you have an affinity, or do you choose works that you feel should be seen by a wider public? Is there any difference?

Memon Sahib: I guess both: affinity and motivation to share. A piece of writing that appeals to me brings, almost at the same time, a compelling desire to expose its wealth to others. My only regret is that I have one life and there is so much good writing I want to translate. There are exceptions though, for instance, when the relevance of a story’s subject matter overrides the propitious conjunction of affinity and desire. I have been lately preoccupied with fiction that addresses the blight of terrorism. I have translated some stories by Middle Eastern and North-West African writers and one story from Urdu. I have found North-West African writers to be more subtle, nuanced, and accomplished in their treatment, from a strictly literary point of view—writers such as Alaa al-Aswani, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohammed Dib, Anouar Benmalek. But the Urdu story, despite my serious reservations, I translated because it is still an honest, though technically somewhat amateurish, attempt by an Urdu writer to come to grips with a grave problem of our times.
Continue reading “Literary Striptease”