Ismat Chughtai

It has remained a source of personal pain to me that I still find highly literate and very open European, African or American scholars of literature who have never read or even heard of Ismat Chughtai. I always photocopy one or two stories by her—usually Lihaaf, which has appeared as The Quilt in English—and give it to them. As a rule, I receive a raving email in a few days, asking me for greater details, followed by another raving email in a few months, thanking me for introducing the scholar to, as one such email put it, “one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century".

Memoirs: Writer Ismat Chughtai. Photo: Hindustan Times

Chughtai’s celebrated Urdu memoir Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, a title aptly lifted from one of Mirza Ghalib’s more obscure shers (couplets), is now available in lucid English translation by M. Asaduddin as A Life in Words: Memoirs (reviewed in Lounge, “A woman for all seasons", 31 March). It is a must-read for anyone interested in literature, or for that matter, life.

Plucky publisher

It is one of those little remarked aspects of publishing today: Most translation takes place from English to other languages, and not from other languages to English. Some rich countries, like north European ones, have a bit of money invested in translating their own writers into English, but still the ratio is grossly uneven. What is even more uneven is the ratio of non-Western texts entering the English-reading market in places like India. It is an aspect of our colonial experience that we use largely colonial cultural bridges, ignoring all others.

One such bridge, which has also existed between India and the “world", is that of Arab literature. It remains grossly ignored. In this context, the Indian imprint, Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, is doing a brave and necessary favour to all of us by bringing out contemporary Arab literature in English.

The one that I read this week is Hoda Barakat’s The Tiller of Waters, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. Translated by Marilyn Booth, this is a major work by an acclaimed Lebanese novelist. Born in Beirut in 1952, Barakat graduated from Beirut University in 1975, and moved to Paris later on, where she continues to reside.

Barakat’s The Tiller of Waters is a complex meditation on science, craft, tradition, modernity, Arabs, Greeks, Kurds, history, myth, etc., presented as the many-layered recollections of a hallucinating man in war-devastated Beirut. This is literature that is no one’s performing monkey.

Comparative literature

Why is it that in India when we do “comparative literature" what we mean is comparison over the colonial bridge? That is, the comparative study of texts from Germany, France, the US or UK, mostly.

There seems to be almost no real “comparative literature" within India and between Indian literatures. Surely, a lot can be done between Bangla, Urdu and Tamil literatures, as well as, say, when it comes to the study of Tagore not as a Bengali writer (or as an Indian writer) but as a writer in Hindi or Telugu translation? It is time Indian universities invested much more in regional comparative literature programmes.

Tabish Khair is the author of How to Fight Islamist Terror From the Missionary Position. He is taking a break from writing this column.

Write to Tabish at readingroom@livemint.com

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