‘I am a fossil’ – more on Prof Ahmed Ali

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Toheed Ahmad*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

Though experts rate Prof Ahmed Ali as the father of Pakistani literature, yet he himself was a tortured soul during the last decades of his life. He never accepted being weeded out of the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1960 as ‘deadwood’. He felt like a fossil which condition he described in some angry detail in a conversation with William Dalrymple. He prophesied in a TV interview that Pakistan will realize his importance after fifty years. On the other hand Pakistan’s literary establishment banished him from our pantheon, which his son Orooj feels was because of his Delhi roots, thus pointing a finger at the Punjabi mentality of the State of Pakistan. ‘The man’, who according to the Urdu legend Intizar Husain, ‘was the first fiction writer who employed the modern techniques in Urdu which the 20th century brought in its wake’, turned into a fossil, and eventually banished.

In his column of 8th February 2015 titled The Forgotten Legacy of Ahmed Ali, Intizar Husain gives his view as follows: “Ahmed Ali, in spite of his valuable contribution to Urdu fiction, suffered from two ambiguities. Firstly, was he primarily an Urdu writer, who also chose to write in English, or vice versa? Secondly, even after bidding goodbye to the (Progressive Writers) movement, should he be treated as a progressive or labelled a reactionary? This two-fold confusion about his literary position cost him dearly. The progressives started ignoring him, while he in bitterness withdrew from Urdu’s literary scene and became more active as an English writer. Eventually, he receded into oblivion as far as his position as an Urdu writer was concerned”.

Dr. Tariq Rahman in his 1990 book A History of Pakistani Literature in English 1947-1988 points to a fundamental problem in Ahmed Ali’s psyche. Since Ahmed Ali lost his father when he was nine years of age, he went to Lucknow to live with his uncle. In the United Provinces (UP) “poetry was intimately connected with the expression of love and amorous feelings and this was connected with sex, and thus poetry was regarded with suspicion and hostility. At the same time, it was also a part of urban culture and was a sign of upper middle-class and aristocratic upbringing. This ambivalence towards poetry, and love, led to a kind of tension and duplicity in the Muslim middle-class culture of UP. So he (Ahmed Ali) found his interest in Urdu poetry, which was all amorous, being in the ghazal form, under avuncular disapproval. As a reaction, he started cultivating English literature. Ahmed Ali explains this as follows: “I remember attending science classes in Aligarh and during Physics class I would be writing poems in English. Urdu had been taken away from me because of the great resentment people, and my uncle’s family had towards writing in Urdu. So I had to express myself and I did it in this way. I could not express myself in Urdu when I was young, so I had to express myself somehow, and English was all right for them”.

This is where Ahmed Ali started to grow a paranoia as the use of English to express himself must have been accompanied by some uprooting from his culture and milieu, which left a permanent scar on his sensitive soul. He did go on to write some 34 Urdu stories in his early manhood along with several stories and then three novels in English. The trauma of Partition could have inflamed this paranoia but his absence at that time due to being a Visiting Professor of English in China, softened the blow. Later during the 12 years of life in the Foreign Service this paranoia was easily contained. His dismissal by General Ayub Khan’s government in 1960 came as a grievous blow which once again brought his paranoia to the fore and can be seen in full bloom in his conversation with William Dalrymple.

Mr. Intizar Husain blames Ahmed Ali’s turning away from Urdu writing on his being ignored by his one time friends and colleagues of the Progress Writers Movement. He did fall out with Sajjad Zaheer over the doctrinaire alliance of the Writers Movement with the Communist Party and Sajjad Zaheer’s insistence that literature should primarily be written for the proletariat. In the Afterword appended to The Prison House (1985) being his English translation of a selection of ten of his Urdu stories, Ahmed Ali contends that “ I held that progress or progressivism could not be narrowed down or confined to Communist channels, and that it applied equally to the middle classes and literature produced by them, of which all of us, the founders of the Movement, were members, so that we had taken it upon ourselves to show the way of progress by example and precept; and that good literature had nothing to do with class war or classes as such, as even a cursory glance at world’ great literature outside of the Communist ideological bloc clearly showed”. At the end of the Afterword, he writes “I have been asked time and again, and particularly since my preoccupation with the translation of the Qur’an, whether I had ceased to be a progressive. My answer has invariably been, and is reiterated here, an emphatic ‘No’….I am still progressive, and try to face the actualities of life, and look at it with unclouded eyes, untrammeled with baseless conservatism or ideality, or the shibboleths of our own making, the tin gods who sit in judgment over our freedom of thought and expression, and restrain us from growth and progress and emancipation from the shackles of blind orthodoxy that hold us back from marching towards the goal of higher perception and purpose of life, the intenser realization of man’s destiny for which he was ordained from the beginning of creation”.

It is worth recalling a chapter titled ‘The Culture of Pakistan’ which he contributed to probably the first book on Pakistan written by the British academic Richard Symonds, published by Faber & Faber in 1950. In the Preface to the book, dated November 1949, Richard Symonds says, “I have been fortunate in persuading Professor Ahmed Ali to contribute an essay on ‘The Culture of Pakistan’, a subject on which I was not competent to write. Professor Ahmed Ali is perhaps best known in England as the author of the novel Twilight in Delhi. In Pakistan he is widely known for his delightful translations of Urdu, as well as of Chinese and Indonesian, poetry. Professor Ahmed Ali and I wrote separately, one in Karachi and the other in Oxford, and neither of us can therefore necessarily be held to share the views or conclusions of the other”.

Prof Ahmed Ali begins by stating that “The subcontinent…..was never one country except under the British from 1857 to 1947, and under Aurangzeb from 1658 to 1707. Within it, as in the continent of Europe, have dwelt peoples belonging to different racial groups, speaking different languages, following divergent traditions, and practicing different religions and cultures. All pre-British definitions of the country, called originally Hindustan, and India since the advent of the Europeans, excluded the territories which now form Pakistan. Within these separate regions dwelt peoples of different races, and cultures as different stages of development flourished.”

In what must rank as the pioneering delineament of the Pakistani soul, Ahmed Ali recalls the separate historical development of the region of Pakistan, and comes to a conclusion that outraged the politicians and professional historians, “The word India, now adopted as the official name for the new Indian Dominion by the Congress Government, is misleading. If any country it is Pakistan that could be called by this name. The word ‘India’ is derived from ‘Sind’, the name by which the Indus River is even now known in Urdu, which changed to ‘Hind’ in Iran and the Arab countries and to ‘Ind’ in Greece. The most ancient culture to flourish in this subcontinent about four thousand years ago and which, as archaeology proves, was destroyed by the Aryans about 1500 B.C., had centred round the River Indus. It was akin to Sumerian and Elamite cultures. Even as far back in time as this, it was not ‘Indian’ in the modern sense of the word. It had more in common with the contemporary civilizations of the valley of Nile, Tigris and Euphrates”. He goes on to quote from an Encyclopedia Britannica article which said, “As we proceed eastward from the Punjab, the Greek type begins to fade. Purity of outline gives place to lusciousness of form”. He concludes this wonderful study thus, “Pakistan’s cultural and literary heritage is rich and ancient…The finer and more aesthetic elements of Delhi and the Indo- Gangetic plain have come to Pakistan. A mellowing of the regional cultures, therefore, seems a certainty, the more so as the distinctions between the different regions are vanishing fast”.

The time when Ahmed Ali wrote this article, he was serving in the External Publicity Department Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Who better could have penned this vision of Pakistan in those early years, and in a scientific language that avoids emotionalism and bluster that we today see in our narratives of Pakistan. In a way his ‘Poppycock’ and ‘Balderdash’ outburst is a protest at this vision being ignored as Pakistan developed into a ‘feudal-bureaucratic-military-mullah’ behemoth right before his eyes.

Reporting on a three day International Conference organized at the Lucknow University to celebrate Prof Ahmed Ali’s birth centenary, in February 2011, Rakshanda Jalil wrote in The Friday Times weekly (March 25-31, 2011) in which he observed, “First and foremost, it gave us occasion to revisit the oeuvre of one of the most significant voices of our times, a voice that was common to both India and Pakistan, a voice that has not always got its due recognition in the Tower of Babel that is the present lot of post-colonial studies, a voice that has never fully been appropriated by either country because parts of it belonged to ‘the Other’. Entitled ‘Ahmed Ali, Progressive Writers and Bilingual Creativity’, the idea behind the Conference was conceived and executed by Prof Harish Trivedi of the Department of English, University of Delhi. The objective was to “commemorate and re-evaluate” Ahmed Ali, the writer-translator “in his wide context”. While closing her piece, Rakshanda urged “publishers on both sides of the border should pay heed and bring out new editions of his short stories that are currently out of print“. No such event is reported to have taken place in Pakistan.

While researching for his celebrated book ‘City of Djinns – A Year in Delhi’, William Dalrymple spent time in India in the 1980s during which he learnt more about Prof Ahmed Ali. He notes that ‘The best impression of the Shahjehanabad…-of the city that was destroyed in 1947 – can be found not in photographs or pictures, nor even in the jaded memories of survivors, but in a slim first novel published to some critical acclaim in 1940. Although the brilliance of Twilight in Delhi was immediately recognized by both E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolfe, most copies of the book were lost when the warehouse of Hogarth Press was destroyed during the Blitz. There was no reprint, and the book was overlooked during the trauma of the Second World War, then in the holocaust of Partition. Only now with the recent publication of a paperback has the book begun to receive the recognition it deserved. For although (until recently) forgotten even in the city it immortalized, Twilight in Delhi is not only a very fine novel, it is also an irreplaceable record of the vanished life and culture of pre-war Delhi. Written only seven years before the catastrophe of 1947, its gloomy tone and pessimistic title were more visionary than Ahmed Ali could ever have imagined”.

“Twilight in Delhi survived Partition to represent the life of Old Delhi to a new readership today, but what I wondered, had happened to its author? My edition of the book gave no clue; and I scanned the bookshops in vain to find other, later works by the same hand. It was a Delhi publisher friend who told me that Ali was in fact alive, now an old man living in obscurity in Karachi. This only made it more intriguing: why would anyone who so obviously loved Delhi with a passion opt to leave it? And why had he not gone on to write other even better books?”

No wonder then that William Dalrymple, on meeting Ahmed Ali in Karachi in the latter half of the 1980s, found him to be “of effete manner of one who modelled himself on a Bloomsbury original. His hair was the colour of wood-ash. For a man once seen as a champion of Delhi’s culture, a bulwark of eastern civilization against the seepage of western influence, Ahmed Ali now cut an unexpectedly English figure; with his clipped accent and tweed jacket with old leather elbow-patches he could have passed off successfully as a clubland character from a Noel Coward play”.

Dalrymple continues, “But despite his comfortable, well-to-do appearance, Ahmed Ali was an angry man. Over the hours I spent with him, he spluttered and spat like a well-warmed frying pan. The first occasion was when I inadvertently mentioned that he was now a citizen of Pakistan. ‘Poppycock! Balderdash!’ he said. ‘I was always against Jinnah. Never had any interest in Pakistan’.

‘Steady on’, said Shanulhaq (Haqqee was had taken Dalrymple to meet Ahmed Ali).

‘’The devil!’ said Ali. ‘Pakistan is not a country. Never was. It’s a damn hotchpotch. It’s not your country or my country’. He was shouting at Shanulhaq now. ‘It’s the country of a damn bunch of feudal lords….robbers, bloody murderers, kidnappers…’

The outburst spluttered into silence.

‘But; I ventured, ‘Didn’t you opt for Pakistan? Surely you could have stayed in Delhi had you wanted to’.

‘I opted for Pakistan? I did not! I was the Visiting Professor in Nanking when the blasted Partition took place. The bloody swine of Hindus wouldn’t let me go back home so…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I went and saw the Indian Ambassador in Peking. Bloody…bloody swine said I couldn’t return. Said it was a question of Hindu against Muslim and that there was nothing he could do. I was caught in China and had nowhere to go’.

‘Careful’, said Shanulhaq, seeing the state his friend had worked himself into.

‘So how did you end up in Karachi?’ I asked.

‘When my salary in Nanking was stopped I found my way to some friends in Hong Kong. They put me on an amphibious plane to Karachi. Where else could I have gone if I couldn’t go back to Delhi?’

Ali had ceased to quiver with rage and was now merely very cross.

‘I never opted for Pakistan’, he said, gradually regaining his poise. ‘The civilization I belonged to – the civilization of Delhi – came into being through the mingling of two different cultures, Hindu and Muslim. That civilization flourished for one thousand years undisturbed until certain people came along and denied that the great mingling took place’.

‘Views like that can hardly make you popular here’.

‘They never accepted me in Pakistan, damn it. I have been weeded out. They don’t publish my books. They have deleted my name. When copies of Twilight in Delhi arrived at Karachi customs from India, they sent them back said the book was about the «forbidden» city across the border. They implied the culture was foreign and subversive. Ha!›

‘In that case can’t you go back to Delhi? Couldn’t you re-apply for Indian citizenship?’

‘Now no country is my country,’ Ali said. ‘Delhi is dead; the city that was…the language…the culture. Everything I knew is finished’.

‘It is true,’ said Shanulhaq. ‘I went back thirteen years after Partition. Already everything was different……..

‘Before Partition it was a unique city,’ said Ali. ‘Although it was already very poor, it still preserved its high culture. That high culture filtered down even to the streets, everyone was part of it; even the milk-wallahs could quote Mir and Dagh….’

‘The prostitutes would sing Persian songs and recite Hafiz…’

‘They may not have been able to read and write but they could remember the poets…’

‘And the language,’ said Shanulhaq. ‘You cannot conceive how chaste Delhi Urdu was…’

‘And how rich,’ added Ali. ‘Every mohalla had its own expressions; the language used by our ladies was quite distinct from that used by men. Now the language has shrunk. So many words are lost.›

We talked for an hour about the Delhi of their childhood and youth. We talked of the eunuchs and the sufis and the pigeons and the poets; of the monsoon picnics in Mehrauli and the djinn who fell in love with Ahmed Ali’s aunt. We talked of the sweetmeat shops which stayed opened until three in the morning, the sorcerers who could cast spells over a whole mohalla, the possessed woman who used to run vertically up the zenana walls, and the miraculous cures effected by Hakim Ajmal Khan. The old men swam together through great oceans of nostalgia before finally coming ashore on a strand of melancholy.

‘But all of that is no more’, said Ahmed Ali. ‘All that made Delhi special has been uprooted and dispersed’.

‘Now it is a carcass without a soul, ‘said Shanulhaq.

‘I am a fossil,’ said Ahmed Ali. ‘And Shanulhaq is on his way to becoming a fossil’.

‘But nevertheless’, I insisted. ‘If you both love Delhi so much wouldn’t you like to see it just one more time?’

‘I will never see that town again’, said Ali. ‘Once I was invited to give some lectures in Australia. There was some mechanical fault and the plane was diverted to Delhi. The plane landed but I refused to get out. I said, ‘I am not getting out. I don’t have to. You call your damned chairman. But I am not putting my foot on that soil which was sacred to me and which has been desecrated’.

‘They got the entire staff of the airport there to get me out, but I didn’t move. How could I? How could I revisit that which was once mine and which was no longer mine? When they asked why I was behaving as I was, I simply sat in my seat and quoted Mir Taqi Mir at them:

What matters it, O breeze,

If now has come the spring

When I have lost them both

The garden and my nest?’

‘What happened, ‘I asked.

‘The swine were all Punjabis,’ said Ali. ‘Tell you the truth, I don’t think they could understand a bloody word I said’.

So who removed Prof. Ahmed Ali’s star from our national firmament? And how? These are questions that have been haunting me for some time now. I can understand him being ignored in India, a country of his birth, upbringing and education. There he is seen as a chronicler of a decaying Indo-Muslim civilization where New Delhi is being returned to its Indraprastha past, as was noted by Ahmed Ali himself, and thus Ahmed Ali may only be of archaeological and some archival interest. Though it must be noted that Indian publishers continue to produce his work which sells in sufficient numbers to justify their business investment in the author’s work, but none on the author himself. Again we saw above that it was the Lucknow University which marked Prof Ahmed Ali’s centenary in 2011 while Pakistan did nothing of the sort. Yet Rakshanda Jalil is forced to admit that Ahmed Ali has not been fully appropriated in India, a blow which she softens by including Pakistan in this blame.

That he wrote in English by itself does not seem to be a crime. After all today there are several Pakistani fiction writers thriving on their English books with none reporting any signs of paranoia or intellectual misery. Ahmed Ali could not have written about a beautiful launderette or the Islam quintet of books themed on episodes of Muslim history. With his pioneering work he did pave the way for the younger generation to write English fiction. Since we have no academic programme in creative writing or comparative literature there is no hope of resurrecting Prof Ahmed Ali. The curriculums and pedagogy in vogue at literature departments of our universities suffer from chronic mediocrity and produce students unskilled in handling or appreciating expression in any language. Sindhi departments, perhaps, stand out as an exception.

In Pakistan, human intellect has never been seen as having market value. Thinkers are branded as drop outs. Philosophers are a drag on the society and study of philosophy as a threat to our faith and ideology, and therefore conformity is all. Creativity is equalled to sedition and innovation spurned as a devilish act. A selective past, we are told, is all we need to know because the future is beyond us. Our literary establishment, where we have some bright stars, has mostly remained weak and is never taken into account when national growth or strength is discussed. Culture at large is judged to be at best of marginal value and hence has no contribution to make to our national profile. And this despite occasional mouthings of our political leadership in support of their lackeys named to head the few literary institutions that we have. Why would the ‘feudal lords, robbers, bloody murderers, kidnappers’ promote literature as long as there are blundering fools who read and write out of their inner compulsion, and whose labour of love fills the coffers of publishers, while the brain of Pakistan withers on the vine. Prof Ahmed Ali took this vapidity of our literary establishment to heart. Yet he was spiritually strong enough to carry on writing, translating, suffering, and thinking for us. When will the 50 years he prophesied our nation will take to realize his worth end? A bigger question is when do these 50 years begin?