By Toheed Ahmad[*]
Prof. Ahmed Ali: Teacher, Novelist, short story writer, critic, translator, poet, entrepreneur, diplomat
There was a prodigal son of his father
Who was employed in the Foreign Service cadre.
His assignment was to wash
Dishes with gin and squash,
But he washed dirty linen with diplomatic lather.
A limerick from the novel Rats and Diplomats
Hardly anyone in our Foreign Service today would remember their senior colleague Prof. Ahmed Ali (1910-1994) who served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and established our mission in China and served in Morocco. He must also have been the first Foreign Service officer to have been dismissed by the all-knowing military regime of President Ayub Khan in his purge of bureaucracy in 1960. The Field Marshal would hardly have known Ahmed Ali personally, so I surmise, he fell prey to jealous wolves in the corridors of power as our capital city was moving from Karachi to Rawalpindi. His sacking signaled that Foreign Office was no abode for poets, writers and translators and that the government wanted ‘straight’ only diplomats – no wings, no spurs; no scope for Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Naruda, or Octavio Paz here.
Ahmed Ali is known the world over as the author of the novel Twilight in Delhi which is taught at many universities and colleges around the world. According to Prof. Carlo Coppola of Oakland University, USA, he was ‘A complex man of wide-ranging intellectual and artistic interests and considerable personal charisma, Ahmed Ali moved with equal ease between West and East and has served as important, though often unrecognized, intellectual bridge and artistic link between these two polarities. Through his creative writings, scholarly publications, and translations, Ahmed Ali brought Asia and some of its choicest literary works to the attention of the often indifferent West’(Special issue of Urdu Studies, Volume 9, 1994, Centre for South Asia, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, Ed. M. U. Memon)
Twilight in Delhi was written in 1939 and published in London the following year by Hogarth Press owned by Virginia Woolf and her husband upon recommendation of E. M. Forster. In Ahmed Ali’s own words, ‘My purpose in writing the novel was to depict a phase in our national life and the decay of a whole culture, a particular mode of thought and living, values now dead and gone before our eyes. Seldom is one allowed to see a pageant of History whirl past, and partake in it too. Since its publication, the Delhi of the novel has changed beyond nostalgia and recognition. For its culture was born and nourished within city walls that lie demolished today and the distinction between its well-preserved jealously guarded language and the surrounding world has disappeared in the rattle of many tongues, even as the homogeneity of its culture has been engulfed in the tide of unrestricted promiscuity.
‘The present rulers have removed the last vestiges on which the old culture could have taken its stand and are moving it further away toward Indraprastha [capital of the kingdom of Pandavas in the epic Mahabharata] affirming the prophecy of the book: Seven Delhis have fallen and the eighth has gone the way of its predecessors, yet to be demolished and built again’. The Urdu critic Muhammad Hasan Askari wrote famously about the novel thus, ‘From the twilight of Delhi arose the dawn of Pakistan’. (Annual of Urdu Studies, cited above; Askari’s Urdu article translated by Prof Coppola).
The second of Ahmed Ali’s novels, Ocean of Night was published by Peter Owen, London, in 1964, is set against the background of Lucknow which had become the centre of Indo-Muslim culture after the British ravaged Imperial Delhi in 1857.
His last novel Rats and Diplomats was published by Ahmed Ali’s own company Akrash Publishing, Karachi, in 1986, and later by Orient Longman in 1995. It is a satiric novel about a diplomatic mission of an imaginary country ‘Bachusan’, where the Ambassador’s moral dissolution manifests itself in his rat like tail.
The book carries a quote from the French historian Amaury de Riencourt (1918-2005) saying, “In the world of politics there are no ethics, no morality, no divine guidance or spiritual sanction”. Part I of the novel is titled ‘Man’ which begins with the following quote from The Mahabharata: “The last word of Social wisdom/ is never trust.” The Second part titled ‘Rodent’ begins with a line from Jorge Louis Borges: “My Lord, Jesus Christ, true God/ and was this, then, the fashion/ of thy semblance?”
Prof. Ahmed Ali was born in Delhi on 1 July 1910 and got his early education in Wesley Mission High School, Azamgarh and matriculated from Aligarh Muslim University. He moved to Lucknow from where he graduated in English securing a first-class-first position. He went on to receive an MA in English Literature from Lucknow University and was appointed Lecturer by his alma mater. In his student days he started writing short stories both in Urdu and English which got published in known literary journals. He contributed two stories to the collection of nine Urdu short stories that was published in 1932 under the title ‘Angarey’ (Burning coals), a book which took India by storm as its content was considered radical, daring and according to some, obscene. The book was banned by the British Indian authorities, which according to Prof. Coppola, remains in effect till today.
He was one of the founders of the All-India Progressive Writers Association. However, he fell afoul of the group as he was unwilling to define the word ‘Progressive’ as ‘communist’, ‘proletarian’ or ‘socialist realist’, while the leader of the pack, Sajjad Zaheer was more doctrinaire because of his membership of the Communist Party of India. After independence, Sajjad Zaheer moved to Pakistan and founded the Communist Party of Pakistan.
In 1939, Ahmed Ali sailed for England with the manuscript of Twilight in Delhi, arriving London a month before the outbreak of the World War II. He spent 13 months in London during which he made acquaintance of many writers of the Bloomsbury Group, especially E.M. Forster. After making arrangements with the prestigious Hogarth Press for the publication of his first novel, he returned to Delhi where he was appointed Director of Listener Research for the BBC, Delhi, a job where his immediate boss in London was George Orwell. Resigning from the BBC in 1944, he joined the Bengal Senior Educational Service and was appointed Professor and Chairman of the Department of English, Presidency College, Calcutta.
In January 1947, he accepted an appointment as British Council Visiting Professor of English at National Central University of China, Nanking, wherein addition to teaching English, he learnt Chinese and teamed up with a Chinese poet to translate an anthology of modern Chinese poetry titled The Call of the Trumpet which, to date, remains unpublished.
While he was in Nanking, the British abandoned their crown jewel of India and in a ‘shameful flight’ left India and Pakistan bleeding while millions moved across the hastily drawn Radcliffe Line. Ahmed Ali was worried about his family in Delhi whom he could no longer contact. He is said to have written to E.M. Forster in London to send some money to his family in Delhi who were thus enabled to migrate to Karachi. In Ahmed Ali’s own words, ‘I was prohibited by the overnight-turned Hindu authorities in 1948 to come back to India and for no other reason than because I was a Muslim. As their ambassador K.P.S. Menon member of the British-Indian Civil Service [father of the current national security czar at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs]. And when I protested, he added, “All that I can do is write to New Delhi, but I can tell you nothing will come of it”, demonstrating a living repetition of history ninety years after the banishment of my grandparents and the Muslim citizens from the vanquished city by the British. Yet while their exile was temporary, mine was permanent and the loss not less, not only of home and whatever I possessed, but also of my birthright, when I had no hatred of any caste or creed in my heart. Yet even as Time takes away, it also reconciles the mind to the alternations of night and day, wearing out grief into regret, the throb of pain into a sigh of the heaving breast’. Ahmed Ali arrived in Karachi to join his family in later summer of 1948.
These were tumultuous times when Pakistan was taking its first steps towards statehood. In the first chapter of Rats and Diplomats, Ahmed Ali remarks that at that time Europe ‘exhausted by its unfettered desire’ was ‘bedding on bedless beds and bottomless pits’. As for the decolonizing third World in the twentieth century among which Pakistan was among the first countries, he said it was ‘groaning under the power-hungry, pigmentless super powers, wresting independence, was weaving Nubian fantasies of faery lands and forlorn maids, their negritude, without inhibitions of aft and fore’, while ‘the field of diplomacy lay yawning wide’. He continues, ‘Ads appeared for dishwashers side by side with those for diplomats’. ‘This was how I found myself dishwashing among diplomats’, says General ® Sourida Soutanna, the Minister Plenipotentiary and Ambassador Extraordinary of the Peoples Republic of Bachusan and the protagonist of the novel.
Ahmed Ali started his Foreign Office career as Director, Foreign Publicity. At that time, together with a group of Indonesian diplomats in Karachi, he published the first translations of Indonesian poetry in English called The Flaming Earth: Poems from Indonesia. In January 1950 he was appointed to the Foreign Service as Senior Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Soon thereafter he got married to Bilqis Jahan, a writer and painter in her own right, and left for Beijing on his first diplomatic assignment to set up our diplomatic mission to China.
Ambassador Azmat Hassan, a retired senior colleague recently narrated an incident of Ahmed Ali in China. He had gone to the Beijing railway station to greet the first Pakistani Ambassador General N.A.M. Raza. When the legendary Gen. Raza stepped off the railway carriage, the waiting Ahmed Ali moved forward to shake the hand of his boss with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. The General refused to shake his hand and ordered him to throw away his cigarette to observe the proper decorum for the occasion. Ahmed Ali must have flinched, quietly cursed his boss, and spat out the cigarette. I suspect that the protagonist of Rats and Diplomats, Ambassador General Soutanna was modeled by the author on his boss at the Beijing mission: ‘Son of a onetime gunner, who, in the last century, was connected with the opium trade, was involved in at least one of the Opium Wars. Went up to the Academy of Lunatic Sciences and received the diploma of Lunacy. Joined the Army during World War II and rose to be a colonel. Fought the unsuccessful Battle of Frogs and was made Honorary Major General in charge of mules. Has been honoured twice with the title of Minor domo and Ribbon of Knight Errant Third Class. Services terminated and placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Foreign Relations for employment abroad. Has been married twice, but has no issue’. Talking of his own ancestry General Soutanna ruminates, ‘My father lived in far off China, smoking opium pipes. My grandfather came from the mountain of honey-sucking nomads, and his father before him from the steppes of roaming wild ass and ponies. My mother’s father had come from the banks of the Tigris, my grand-mother from the plains of Indian Ganges and her mother’s mother from the valley of Rhone. As a natural corollary I was conceived by the English Humber where my father had gone purchasing guns and where my sweet Cynthia now complains of my false promises and opium-obfuscated dreams’. What an ethnic mix, one that makes the Pakistani stock so robust and imaginative.
Throughout the novel, Ambassador Soutanna has an ambivalent relationship with the Charge d’Affaires (CDA) whom he distrusts while having to rely on his knowledge and experience of diplomatic goings on, again probably modeled on General Raza-Ahmed Ali Khan relationship. Here is how Gen Soutanna introduces the readers to his CDA: ‘The First Secretary, who was acting as Charge d’Affaires, and was called CDA by everyone, received me in a manner as though he were the foreign Minister of Ratisan, and introduced me to the Protocol Officer and other Ratisanians as ‘the Ambassador’, which I did not like in the least. Did they not call everyone His Excellency in the Foreign Service even though the President was addressed as plain Mr. President?’
On taking the charge of the Chancery, General Soutanna says , ‘Having seen the behavior of CDA, and his lack of interest in my comforts, I decided to kill the cat the very first day, and summoned the staff and told them I was in command henceforth, that CDA as only the First Secretary. Everyone had to obey my orders, and anyone who did not, would be sent back post haste. All the members of the staff looked at CDA. So I took the Scripture from my pocket and said: “You must take an oath of loyalty to me”. As I thought they could always go back on their word, I dictated an Office Order, especially because I feared that CDA may prove difficult and asked them to give me an undertaking to that effect’.
Some of the reflections of General Soutanna regarding his country’s Foreign Ministry are eerily reminiscent of our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and seem to accurately reflect some of Ahmed Ali’s own conclusions. At one place the Ambassador rues that ‘Our Foreign Office being famous for fickleness and changing its mind’. On another occasion the Ambassador observes, ‘The ignorance of the Foreign Office wrapt in red-tape was unspeakable. I must take charge of it one day and set their left-lobed brains right or steam-roller the lot’. This reminds of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who served as Special Assistant to the President, mentioning in his book A Thousand Days: John Kennedy in the White House (1965) his outrage at what he called the low level of literacy in the State Department and his campaign to force the diplomat-mandarins to read more.
Rats and Diplomats is a sardonic novel, seething with anger, and like Jonathan Swift’s writings, is rife with hilarious irony. In an interview given to Asif Farrukhi for The Herald magazine, when asked that this novel is most disturbing and concerns itself with the grotesque, Ahmed Ali replied, ‘Life itself is disturbing today…All creative art deals with experience. Life is what man makes of it. In the words of the CDA in the novel, in man’s experience it is evil that triumphs and succeeds in reversing man’s fate or destiny, even though through a flaw of the character of man himself. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would pale into insignificance in the face of horrors that may be unleashed by the secret weapons developed for so-called developing countries with their own terrifying experience of unrelenting dictatorship and mounting squalor, disease, and ignorance, the worst exploitation of man by man, which is the subject of this new novel – life after the Second World War and the consequent loss of human and moral values.
‘Reality is not what it seems or is made out to be; the bestial in human nature glares in this dusk of culture like a raw wound. The minds of the mighty are warped by corruption, greed, and power, and have distorted the face of humanity into grotesque shapes. Think of the self-styled Emperor Bokassa or Idi Amin, the racist perpetrators of apartheid, of Auschwitz, Vietnam, the Shatila refugee camp. Human beings have turned human beings into rats and pigs. Don’t forget that this novel is a satire. Jonathan Swift made regional feuds, the war, the emperor, ridiculous; inhabitants of the island pygmies or giants or Yahoos. George Orwell turned them into pigs. When Pandora’s Box is opened, the grotesque shapes multiply and abound. Today’s world is an apt subject of satire, for good sense has failed to prevail’.
From China Ahmed Ali returned to Karachi in 1952 and served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not much is readily available on his service at the headquarters. Prof. Coppola informs that during 1954 he visited England, France and Spain, and in 1956 visited China again. He was appointed Counsellor-Charge d’Affaires to Morocco in 1958. Ambassador Azmat Hassan who served as Ambassador to Morocco from 1995 to 1999 told me in a recent conversation that he had seen copies of some reports Ahmed Ali had sent from Rabat and found them of immense value. The subjects of these reports ranged from Moroccan internal developments, regional issues and the great regard which the Moroccans showed for Pakistan’s role in their freedom struggle against French colonialists, especially in the United Nations. I contacted the current Ambassador in Rabat who regretted that he could not trace the files of Ahmed Ali’s reports which he thought may have been misplaced during the moves of the Chancery building. Enquiries at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs drew a proverbial blank.
In 1960 after being dismissed by the military regime, he returned to Karachi and found employment as Public Relations Advisor to Indus Chemicals and Alkalis Ltd and the Zafarul Ahsan Group of companies where he worked for a number of years. Later he started his own business of manufacturing towels. Despite his full-time business activities, Ahmed Ali continued with his literary activities, publishing his first volume of poetry, Purple Gold Mountains: Poems from China (1960); the remaining anthologies of poetry translations, The Bulbul and the Rose (1960), and the Golden Tradition (1973); and his second novel, Ocean of Night (1964).
Prof. Coppola’s biographical account then informs us that in 1975 Ahmed Ali made the first of two visits to the United States, serving as Visiting Professor of Humanities at Michigan State University, returning again in 1978-79 as Fulbright Professor of History, Western Kentucky University, and Fulbright Professor of English, Southern Illinois University. By 1980 he had completed his acclaimed English translation of the Quran. In 1981 Ahmed Ali was awarded the Sitara-e-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan. Four years later Rats and Diplomats was published. Despite the onset of ill health and marked deterioration of both his sight and hearing, Ahmed Ali remained busily engaged in new writing projects and revision of older pieces as long as he was able.
Mr. Alamgir Hashmi, the foremost living Pakistani poet of English expression, also contributed a superb piece to the Special issue of Annual of Urdu Studies in which he opines that Rats and Diplomats ‘deals with general decay in the world, in which representatives of the “newly freed fourth world” find analogs of their own decay and depravity prevalent on a universal scale. Consequently, the poetry disappears completely. And so does realism…The narrative aspires to the moral status of a fable’.
Upon being recalled by his government, General Soutanna ruminates which reminds me of Ahmed Ali’s dismissal from Foreign Service at Rabat: ‘I had come to Ratisan a General, but was going back a rat with a tail, or tale if you like… yet as awareness of the situation awakened slowly within me, reflected though the haze of events and the metamorphosis, whoever was responsible for my condition, Samia or Khrosa, Communist or Democrat, they were just men, and it has been going on for thousands of years. Mankind has been caught in it as completely as the rats, covered with dirt. Whether renewal or decay, the wheel of law will not cease. Humanity must go on struggling for freedom and joy so long as the earth survives and the skies endure’.
Prof. Hashmi surmises that ‘Leaving introspective historical fictions – at a time when reconstructive urges were paramount in the writing in major Indian languages, including English, as in the writings of Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao and K. A. Abbas – his long fictional silence and preparation only led him to wield what Ahmed Ali called the “scalpel”. Evidently an ironic instrument of discourse, the “scalpel” had to replace the realistic and reconstructive fictions of the colonial period which insufficiently grasped either the historical forces at work or the tremendous flux that they caused in the fundamental structure of colonial societies. Yet Ahmed Ali’s penetrating mind would not rest easy for answers on triumphs of style. He had experienced the twentieth century too fully to settle for simplistic solutions and continued to see a precise definition of modernity. It is in regard to this resoiling of culture that the search for harmony, love, and renewal is found to be at the heart of Ahmed Ali’s fiction, as much as his poetry’.
Prof. Hashmi calls Ahmed Ali ‘an epoch-making personality. He was the father of modern Pakistani literature; in fact, his work helped shape twentieth-century South Asian literature in both English and Urdu’. He adds, ‘Ahmed Ali’s career spanned the better part of the century and his works put us in touch with both our past and our present. His renderings of the literatures of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East established links which were not yet known, and are remembered respectfully. His creative writings still draw wide interest and are an enduring contribution to international letters. As he wrote in 1985 (‘Afterword, The Prison-House):
“I am still a 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 shackles of blind orthodoxy that hold us back from marching towards the goal of higher perception and purpose of life, the intenser of realization of man’s destiny or which he was ordained from the beginning of creation”. Ahmed Ali truly lived up to his credo till the very moments of his life.
I recall seeing some years ago a grainy TV interview of Prof. Ahmed Ali in which an angry man was saying something to the effect that it would take Pakistan another 50 years to realize the importance of my work. He may be better known and appreciated abroad but here in Pakistan, I feel, he is not being properly studied, mainly because most of it is in English. Thus he hardly figures in our mainstream Urdu literary studies, and the graduates of English literature hardly look at his immense contribution to Pakistan’s literary heritage. For him to be truly studies we would have to create centres of comparative literature/studies where he can be read in a wholesome manner. We should caste one last look at his grave and read the inscription on his tombstone and say a prayer:
The Parchment has come to end
Yet the Encomium remains. (Ghalib).
FULL LIST OF AHMED ALI’S PUBLICATIONS
- Angary: (contributed two stories to this anthology of nine) Lucknow, Nizami Press; 1933
- Sholay: Allahabad, Niya Sansar; 1936
- Humari Gali: Delhi, Insha Press; 1942
- Qaid Khana: Delhi, Insha Press; 1944
- The Prison House, (in English): Karachi, Akrash Publishing; 1985
- Break the Chains, (in English): Lucknow; 1932
- The Land of Twilight, (in English): Lucknow, R, Sareshta, 1937
- Twilight in Delhi: London, Hogarth Press; 1940
- Ocean of Night: London, Peter Owen; 1964
- Rats and Diplomats: Karachi, Akrash Publishing; 1986
- When Love is Dead: Substantially revised version of the novel Ocean of Night, Completed in 1988 (Unpublished)
- Purple Gold Mountain, (in English): London, Keepsake Press, 1960
- Remembrance of Things Past, (in English): Karachi, Naeem Sind Press
- Art Ka Taraqi Pasand Nazaria: Aurangabad, Deccan, Anjuman Taraqi Urdu Press; 1936
- Elliot’s Penny World of Dreams: Lucknow University; 1942
- The problem of style and technique in Ghalib: Karachi Akrash Press; 1969
- Ghalib: Two essays with Alessandro Bausani: Rome, Instituto Italiano Per il Medio ed. Estremo Orient; 1969
- Ghalib Selected Poems; Rome, Instituto Italiano Per il Medio ed. Estremo Orient; 1969
- The Flaming Earth: Karachi, Friends of Indonesian Cultural Society; 1949
- The Falcon and the Hunted Bird: Karachi, Kitab Publishers; 1950
- The Bulbul and the Rose: Karachi, Maktaba-e-Jamia; 1960
- Al-Quran: A Contemporary Translation: Karachi, Akrash Publishing; 1984
- The Golden Tradition; New York, Columbia University Press, 1973
- The Cry of the Gazelle Urdu and its Poetry
- The Anguised Heart Mir and the Eighteenth Century
- The Molten Flame The Age of Ghalib
PART I EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
Shamsuddin Mohammad Vali; Mir Sirajuddin Siraj; Khawaja Mohammad Rafi Sauda; Mohammad Taqi Mir; Vali Mohammad Nazir; Mir Ghulam Hasan; Insha Allah Khan Insha
PART II NINETEENTH CENTURY
Bahadur Shah Zafar; Khawaja Haider Ali Atish; Sheikh Ibrahim Zauq; Asadullah Khan Ghalib; Momin Khan Momin; Mir Babbar Ali Anis; Nawab Mirza Khan Dagh
- The Call of the Trumpet: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry: Unpublished
- Muslim China: Karachi, Institute of International Affairs; 1949
- Pakistan P.E.N. Miscelleany: Karachi, Kitab Publisher; 1950
- Selected short stories from Pakistan Islamabad: Pakistan Academy of Letters; 1983
- “The Indus Flows on”: unfinished manuscript of a History of Pakistan
[*] The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.