M.U. Memon's "An Epic Unwritten"--A Review Essay
An Epic Unwritten
Edited and Translated by Muhammad Umar Memon
New York and New Delhi: Penguin, 1998.
New York and New Delhi: Penguin, 1998.
The English-reading public has witnessed in recent years an exceptional, if quiet literary achievement. Not one but four critically informed anthologies of Partition literature have reached publication: Alok Bhalla's Stories about the Partition of India (1994), Saros Cowasjee and K.S. Duggal's Orphans of the Storm (1995), Mushirul Hasan's India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom (1995), and most recently, Muhammad Umar Memon's collection of Urdu short fiction, An Epic Unwritten (1998). With these translations, the cultural devastation of the Partition is brought forward with unprecedented depth and scope to an international public.
Are so many collections necessary? It is immediately evident that the sheer abundance of good material justifies the undertaking. Further justification lies in the tricky business of translation itself, so that many perspectives are better than few. This is of course in addition to variations in translation quality, acumen and skill. In another sense, however, the question itself is misdirected: could there be, for example, "too many" short stories on the Cambodian killing fields or the Shoah? Monumental social crises whose effects are still very much with us deserve precisely the sustained consideration these collections enable.
The four collections share several editorial concerns. First, there is an affirmation that the Partition is not merely a problem for the subcontinent. For Bhalla, Hasan, Cowasjee and Duggal, the Partition's political relevance is obvious: if the ubiquity of civil conflict owing to post-colonial social and political instabilities (in southeast Asia, the greater part of Africa, the Middle East) were not proof enough, the Partition stands as one of our century's most inglorious episodes of communal acrimony, of which it manifested almost every sort: ethnic, religious, national and even racial. Additionally, the rhetoric of cultural chauvanism surrounding the Partition exemplified the insidious problem of communal aggression speaking the language of freedom, cultural pride and self-determination--a problem that vexes all corners of the contemporary world. Memon is no less concerned with the Partition's broad relevance--for literature rather than for politics, or one might say for politics because of literature--of which more below.
Secondly, while discussion of the high politics of the Partition is of varying importance to each editor--and least important to Memon--there is a consensus that the Partition had its roots in the politics of the late colonial period rather than in bellicosity and enmity construed as essential to Hindu, Muslim and Sikh identity. The common cultural heritage of the subcontinent, the confluence of Hindu and Muslim elements in popular culture and religion, the complexity of political allegiances when homeland and nation diverge, as they did for millions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, and the sense that the Partition was visited on the common people of the country--was not so much chosen as submitted to--are matters of editorial agreement. The pain of the partition not just of land but of a single people forms a major theme in all of the collections.
Thirdly, there is an affirmation of the extreme dangers of communal politics in South Asia today. If the Partition was a triumph for religious extremists who believed that the creation of separate nations represented, in the Hindu case, the triumph of religious purity, and in the Muslim case, the protection of the endangered community of the faithful, the victory was pyrrhic at best. The widespread exile, murder, torture, rape, abduction and incalculable loss of property suffered by innocents of every community inaugurated fifty years of intermittent communal conflicts in the subcontinent's cities, three wars between India and Pakistan, recurrent covert warfare and continuous hostility between the two nations. The recent nuclear arms tests by both countries bring the subcontinent's communal politics to the gravest levels. Not just the memory of the Partition's cataclysmic events but the threat of further destruction in the name of religion and nation, what Memon terms the "pall over the corporate existence of [both] countries" is the Partition's legacy.
Finally, the editors of these collections share a conviction in the power of fiction to bear witness, reveal and sometimes provoke insight, guard memory, and sustain the experience of pain and of survival. Hasan would extend this power to diaristic nonfiction as well.
While agreeing on these broad concerns, the editors of these collections moot the distinct roles for literature in social and political catastrophe, and indeed part emphatically over the issue of literature's pedagogical role in relation to the Partition. If literary work on the Partition becomes relevant precisely as a form of public discourse, the four collections do not just complement but compete in their critical perspectives, even as they claim to transcend partisan debate. Together they bring readers to the battlefield of South Asian literary politics as much as to a literary roundtable.
Thus for Bhalla and Hasan, the issue is how literature plays out politics. For Bhalla, this means the ways that Partition literature legitimizes his own neo-Gandhian agenda. His editorial selection is dominated by an ethical pedagogy favoring stories that arouse outrage at the events, display the democracy of violence, showcase the worth of all traditions and articulate the blessings of a shared culture. As an editor he openly censures works not abiding by this agenda. Literary value in itself is a secondary concern, both in his affection for didactic narrative, and as we will see, in the quality of his translations. For Hasan, the issue is likewise his own politics, specifically his participation in recent scholarship that traces the causes of the Muslim League's success in the late 1930s and early 1940s, while placing the blame for the Partition primarily with the Indian National Congress. Hasan's revisionism at times treads close to Pakistani nationalism--just as Bhalla's secular Hinduism flirts with Indian nationalism (although probably not with a loyal son like Pradeep Dalvi)--but it is scholarship and sober reflection, rather than prescriptive ethics, that form the basis of Hasan's editorial agenda.
For Cowasjee and Duggal, but especially for Memon, the issue is not politics played out in literature, but literature as it happens to intersect and so impact politics. Memon understands literature as a realm of the world but apart from the world, a space of quietude and sophistication where competing versions of truth meet and "unlike the real world" do not "necessarily collide…overpower and…annihilate" each other (Introduction, p. xii). A space large enough to accommodate competing versions of truth might mean, in the case of the Partition, a collection representing the violence and devastation from every community's perspective--in other words a collection not so far from Bhalla's. Memon means something different. Because literature for Memon is a pacific realm in which opposites intermingle rather than clash, didacticism and moralism are impediments to the more profound workings of good fiction. Likewise Memon is averse to the sermonizing political idealism of the Progressive movement (a movement still kicking in an editor like Bhalla). Indeed, Memon wishes to disavow politics as the measuring stick for Partition literature. Rather Memon believes, following Intizar Husain, that literature is "neither constructive nor destructive" but is "just literature" (Introduction, p. xiii).
Here, however, Memon risks underselling his own achievement. His book does not entomb Urdu Partition literature in a private "literary" realm where its assistance in the repair of the world is indirect, accidental or inchoate. To the contrary, his work denies us exit into the precincts of literature for literature's sake. The refusal to force literature to yield a "blueprint" for "moral reformation" (Introduction, pp. xii-xiii) is, in Memon's hands, the beginning, not the end, of literature's social impact. Why? In rich and engaging translations, he brings us stories that give the imagination full play in the grim and uncertain world of the Partition, stories whose adroitness sweeps away the feeling that dust and gossamer come between ourselves and those days. His efforts thereby sharpen and intensify us as ethical creatures and as citizens. Perhaps this is to give Memon credit he is unwilling to accept. But even if Memon were less skilled a translator, he would still be saddled with possibly unwanted success. For while he deftly avoids didactic works, the stories he translates are still inherently politicized, and so Memon's efforts cannot quite serve an ideal of literature's political indifference, even if he wishes they did. More accurately, his efforts plead the virtues of rejecting political mission statements for literature of political import.
Memon's editorial attention runs to pieces that manifest the subtle challenges to the conscience that he believes literature allows. Specifically, he is drawn to stories located in the predicament of a highly individualized protagonist, whose existential situation mirrors and sometimes envelops his or her historical experience. These protagonists, in turn, become a foil for our own complicated, sympathetic response to the issues the stories address.
In the first section of the collection, in stories addressing the Partition directly, Memon repeatedly offers us characters of exceptional, occasionally transcendent experience and insight. Ashfaq Ahmad's Dauji ("The Shepherd") is a magnificent trans-credal hero misunderstood during times of peace and brutalized during the Partition. Ahmad Nadim Qasimi's Parmeshar Singh ("Parmeshar Singh") is a hard-headed dissident and ultimately a martyr to his effort to adopt a Muslim boy in place of his own abducted son. Intizar Husain's Pichwa ("An Unwritten Epic") is an elevated misfit warrior driven from his native village in India and then from Pakistan, who finally dies trying to "fight the wind with a lamp." Rajinder Singh Bedi's Sundar Lal ("Lajwanti") is a devoted crusader for the dignity of women stigmatized by abduction during the Partition, whose very idealism tragically impedes his recognition of his wife's full humanity. Saadat Hasan Manto's Sahae ("Sahae") is a virtuous pimp murdered during the riots of the Partition, whose final gesture embodies the tragedy of religious sectarianism and the triumph of his spirit. Ismat Chughtai's Amma ("Roots") is a pariah in her own family, whose stubborn adherence to her native place narrowly averts exile.
In the second section of the collection, in stories focusing on the legacy of the Partition, Memon presents works of finely filigreed psychological tension. Syed Muhammad Ashraf's "The Rogue" allegorically represents the insidious character of communal strife in the futile attempt to tame a mad beast. Masud Ashar's "Of Coconuts and Chilled Bottles of Beer" relates the tale of a light-hearted river cruise that a low-grade Pakistani-Bengali conflict ultimately turns phantasmagoric. Salam Bin Razzack's "A Sheet" describes the unwitting but rapid deterioration of a Hindu-Muslim friendship against the backdrop of communal riots, in which the affirmation of common humanity is finally offered only to a corpse. Ilyas Ahmad Gaddi's "A Land without Sky" describes a young graduate's losing struggle for respectability within his family, and the subsequent disintegration of his career, his friendships and his city in the wake of communal conflict.
In addition to the complexity of the works Memon has selected, his collection stands out in the sophistication of his translations. Memon comes from the school of thought that a translation is a work in itself, and so deserves as much integrity as possible (in contrast to the view that a translation is always an approximation, and so should retain rough edges to refer to its derivative status). Consequently Memon's translations are well crafted, well polished and well paced. At the same time that they are fresh in their use of idiomatic English, they are adept at judicious retention of Urdu words and references. Memon's elegant translations succeed at the difficult task of revealing the literary worth of the original stories through but not because of English translations.
The differences between Memon's translations and others' translations of the same story are sometimes quite revealing. Bhalla translates a passage from Ismat Chughtai's "Roots" as follows:
"When there was a open call to throw the Muslims out of our region, it created a lot of difficulties. The Thakurs refused. They insisted that the community was much too intermingled and that it would be necessary to employ a large staff to identify the Muslims. To do so, they insisted, would be a great waste of money. They could, however, help people to buy forest land for the refugees. After all only animals lived in forests and they could be driven out whenever necessary." (Bhalla, Vol. III, p. 10)
Here is Memon's version of the same paragraph:
"Subsequently, when it was suggested that minorities be asked to leave certain areas, a great deal of commotion ensued. The Thakurs openly stated that well, the population is so closely enmeshed that a special staff would be required to weed out the Muslims, which is just so much extra expense. However, if you wish to buy some land for the rioters, we can arrange to have some areas vacated. There are animals living here already, the jungle can be made available whenever you want." (Memon, p. 190).
Bhalla's translation sacrifices logic to make a point in keeping with his own ideology. Bhalla's Thakurs are not just practical but eminently progressive, willing to drive the animals out of the forest to relocate refugees. Drive the animals out of the forest to relocate refugees? Was even Gandhi so imprudent? Notwithstanding the somewhat bizarre creation of moronically well-intentioned citizens, Bhalla's decision to change "rioters" into "refugees" takes the sarcasm and edge out of the original. Memon, by contrast, not only sets forth the author's biting comparison of rioters to animals, but through the deliberate use of a comma splice in the last sentence, artfully conveys the Thakurs' abrupt impatience with the very idea of relocation. Later in the same story, in a passage establishing a critical metaphor, Bhalla's version compares Amma, the protagonist, to "a banyan tree which survives even as the storms rage around it" (Bhalla, Vol. III, p. 16), while Memon's version compares her to "the roots of a giant oak that remain standing in the face of a fierce storm" (Memon, p. 198). By choosing a tree rich in allusion to specifically Hindu literature, Bhalla--following his ecumenical urges--transforms Amma from a strong character who happens to be Muslim into a resolutely "Indian" icon. By multiplying the "storm" of the Partition into uncounted and presumably unceasing "storms," Amma becomes a time-honored, long-suffering heroine rather than a courageous woman who survives the dark days of the Partition by discovering a fortitude and conviction previously unknown to herself.
Memon's work also brings to light more cloying errors. In Chughtai's "Roots," Bhalla repeatedly translates "Bari" as "Badi" and "Bare" as "Bade." Or, to take another example, Memon's translation has people return from Pakistan for having to pay "a rupee to buy four sers of grain," (Memon, p. 190), while Bhalla has them return for having to "buy wheat at four rupees a seer" (Bhalla, Vol. III, p.10). Jai Ratan's translation of Bedi's "Lajwanti," appearing in Cowasjee and Duggal's collection, actually omits several paragraphs that appear both in Memon's translation and in Bedi's own translation. The omissions not only flatten the picture of Sundar Lal's imagination of Lajwanti's suffering, but also the dimensions of Lajwanti's sorrow. Indeed, the omitted sections contain some of the story's most poignant descriptions--of the humiliation and shame of women made into chattel by the "cold-blooded people who traded in human merchandise, in human flesh" during the Partition (Memon, p. 24). Likewise, Ratan deadens the impact of Lajwanti's predicament by translating a crucial sentence appearing at the end of the story as: "She had been rehabilitated but not accepted," (Cowasjee and Duggal, p. 78), where Memon, like Bedi, renders it: "Yes, she had been rehabilitated, but she had also been ruined" (Memon, p. 29).
All told, though, Memon's book appeals not merely in its details, but in the overall ethos of its consideration of evil. If contemporary criticism emphasizes the ways in which varieties of discourse, including fiction, construct our world and do not merely reflect it, Memon's collection poses some curiously old-fashioned challenges. On the one hand, it tokens the seductive power of fine fiction and our almost primitive vulnerability to stories, regardless of our analytic acumen. At the same time, his book advances a discourse--or, to leave jargon aside, a proposition--not of inexorable fragmentation and exile from a sane world, but of slow redemption from communal suffering through the quiet, idiosyncratic struggles in our midst--or within ourselves. These struggles proceed not through prescriptive ethics but through endlessly difficult particulars, in which conscience and humanity arise through the individual, not the abstract confrontation with human evil. If our cynical age frowns on literature that is sincere, and on characters capable of authentic bravery, Memon's stories show just such literature's complexity and pluck.