Ahmed Ali (1908–1994) is better known in the English-reading world as one of the founder members of the Progressive Writers’ Association in 1936, as one among the four of the (in)famous Angaray group. But Ali’s reputation as writer and scholar suffered variously, Farooqi points out in her Introduction, when he separated himself from the PWA and from mainstream Urdu writing as well. This edition tries to examine the many-faceted talents of a man who wrote short stories and poetry, novels as well as essays, enjoyed a considerable reputation as a translator of Urdu literature, and later translated the Koran, which itself ran into several editions, through the different essays included in it.
The collection has a curious mix of earlier writings as well as recent pieces: there is an essay on his novel by Ali’s contemporary, Muhammad Hasan Askari, that was originally published in 1949 in Urdu, an interview conducted by Carlo Coppola in 1975, re-worked versions of a 1979 essay by Coppola on Ali’s short fiction and a 1980 essay on Ali’s poetry as well as an essay on Ali’s fictions by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi delivered as a memorial lecture in 2011. The other articles are Ahmad al-Rahim’s contextualization of Ali’s translation of the Koran (2001 edition), Snehal Shingavi’s take on Ali’s anti-colonial stance in his most famous work, Twilight in Delhi and Mehr Farooqi’s analysis of language in Ali’s bilingual work.
Let me begin with Farooqi’s article, ‘Language Crossings: Dilli to Delhi Through the World of Ahmed Ali,’ simply because issues of language and translation are also of some interest to me. Ali, who had published an English short story, an Urdu short story and a play in English during 1929–31, contributed two short stories in Urdu to Angaray (1932), an experimental collection of short stories in Urdu published from Lucknow. The project was to lampoon what the contributors saw as the social evils and hypocrisy of religious institutions in Muslim society. The scandal that followed this publication, burnt publicly and banned by the government, helped to solidify the group into an association—the PWA—but Ali parted ways with the rest by 1938. Principally, Farooqi says, Ali differed from the PWA’s adherence to a politicized Marxist socialist realism, and instead felt that art should ‘not become embroiled with politics or it would become propaganda’ (p. 25).
It was in the summer of 1938 that Ali began work on his first novel in English, Twilight in Delhi (published by the Hogarth Press in 1940) which brought him acclaim from the English-speaking and reading world. Ali wrote in English—‘a dominant language and literary tradition’—of a world grounded in Urdu—‘a minor language’—and this bilingualism, at times opaque, Farooqi comments, ‘punctures’ and presents ‘palimpsests’ that ‘filtered’ a reality (p. 28). Ali’s understanding of Delhi’s past and its culture, notes the author, misses that it is not an exclusively Muslim past. However, grants Farooqi, it could have been a ‘naïve understanding of modernity’ which at the time could not ‘see’ alternative futures for the modern. And in his inability to become a ‘revolutionary’ like his PWA colleagues, neither a ‘recognized “Indian writer,”’ and nor a ‘Pakistani Muslim writer,’ Ali became, says Farooqi, a ‘singularity’ (p. 34; emphasis in the original). He gradually stopped writing in Urdu, though he became renowned as a translator from Urdu to English, in a creative output that was ‘responsive to the internal dynamic’ of the experiences of colonization, de-colonization, bi-lingualism and bi-culturalism (p. 34).
Farooqi’s very suggestive article stops short of pushing an underlying idea here—what if the ‘verbosity’ of one language or the ‘intensity and passion’ of another were not simply a matter of technique in the hands of a writer, but issues of ‘minor’ queries on ‘major’ claims of nationhood and belonging? Would it be that Ahmed Ali’s work is indicative of what has elsewhere—in the context of another of Ali’s (in)famous contemporary, Saadat Hasan Manto—been termed the ambivalent relationship of Urdu to the nationalist discourse/culture of the time? Farooqi’s article hints and yet stops shy of the idea: what if Ali’s ‘singularity’ could also be read not only as a probe into mainstream discourses of (literary) nationalism upon which two nations were founded but also as an ambivalence about which ‘nation’ his ‘nationalist’ novel (Twilight in Delhi) refers to?
Ahmed H. al-Rahim’s ‘Translation as Contemporary Qur’anic Exegesis: Ahmed Ali and Muslim Modernism in India’ revisits the 2001 edition of Ahmed Ali’s translation of the Qur’an. Ali’s translation— influenced by modernist Muslim thought and scientism that inextricably links the project to exegesis— addressed themes such as the natural sciences, miracles, superstition and folklore, as well as women and gender rights. The author uses a selection of verses to make a case for Ali’s modernist, liberal sensibilities that, he says, marshalled traditional textual evidences for a metaphorical and non-literal, contemporary reading, in an attempt to reconcile ‘Islam, the Muslim world and modernity’ (p. 145).
Snehal Shingavi’s ‘Lavish Weddings and Nostalgic Delhis: Anticolonial Aesthetics in Ahmed Ali’s Fiction’ unpacks the detailed depiction of a wedding—replete with lavish customs and petty familial debates—in Twlight in Delhi. Shingavi places the conspicuous consumption and display during the celebration, usually read as a memorialization of a past, in the context of the contradictions of Ali’s anticolonial aesthetics. He argues that Ali’s novelistic imagination has to be read in juxtaposition with events around the turn of the twentieth century: on the one hand, there was the redistricting of Delhi to Punjab (from the North-west Provinces, later the United Provinces) after 1857 and Lutyens’ demolition of the old city to build a modern, New Delhi, that marked ‘Delhi’s “Indian-ness” by . . . marking it off as a city and not as India itself’ (p. 170). On the other, the distance from the greatness of Delhi’s past, its irretrievable literary/cultural loss—punctuated in the 1920s and 1930s by the ‘invasion’ of Delhi by Punjabis as well as the communalism of shudhi and sangathan projects of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Arya Samaj—signified, for Ali, the simultaneous distance from the ‘future of a nationalist promise’. Shingavi makes a persuasive case for re-reading Ali’s novel for the ‘complicated processes by which Muslim identity navigated the choices thrust upon it. . .’ (p. 172).
One senses that Ahmed Ali’s work could bear with more critical readings and editions that explore his oeuvre in further detail, as the articles mentioned briefly above do. The reproduction of Coppola’s interview with Ahmed Ali allows us to hear the writer’s own thoughts on literature, art, aesthetics, politics, and of course on the genesis and early history of the PWA. The joint statement by Ahmed Ali and Mahmuduzzafar ‘In Defense of Angare’ (in which the call for a League of Progressive Authors was made) and the first reviews of Ali’s work are also included here. Four of Ahmed Ali’s letters to Coppola reproduced at the end of the volume give further insight into his views on his career, both academic and diplomatic, his dealings with different literary personalities, apart from tidbits of gossip on several prominent men and women of the time, and how he ‘became a Pakistani’ while the reproduction of Twlight in Delhi’s dust jacket adds a certain quaint charm. However, considering that some of the essays are available elsewhere (excerpts from Coppola’s interview are on the internet, for instance), the price from an academic publisher does seem a bit steep!
Asma Rasheed teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.