In 2007, New York Magazine cited Manzoor Ahtesham’s Dastan-e Lapata as one of “the world’s best untranslated novels.” Eleven years later, Northwestern University Press publishes the first English version of the novel, translated by Jason Gronebaum and Ulrike Stark, thereby making a milestone in Indo-Muslim literature accessible to an English-speaking readership. The novel itself explores modern Muslim life in the wake of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan through the eyes of the fictional main character Zamir Ahmad Khan who suffers from a mix of alienation, guilt, and postmodern anxiety that defies diagnosis.
In the following, you can read an excerpt from the novel, in which Zamir Ahmad Khan realizes that studying at Aligarh Muslim University is not for him, followed by an interview with Manzoor Ahtesham, Jason Gronebaum and Ulrike Stark.
The year spent in Aligarh was like Chinese water torture, with each day passing slowly, drop by drop.
But time does eventually pass, whether a long period of illness, or the recovery afterward. The academic year at Aligarh University was coming to an end. In the final months he’d tried to drop subtle hints to Abba in their correspondence that he wanted to continue his studies in his hometown. The reason? Aligarh just didn’t suit him. And why not? He really missed Bhopal, and home. Despite this, Abba probably thought to himself, “Son! Aligarh doesn’t suit you? You don’t like it there? ‘Not liking it’ doesn’t become an intelligent person like you. No sensitive person has ever been able to like the world, so how could you? You must look for excuses, you have to trick yourself into pretending you like it. Time is the great master, my dear son! When you come back to Bhopal, you’ll find that life is no more agreeable for you here. That it makes no difference whether you’re in your own city or getting settled in an unknown place. With strangers at least you can hope to become friends. But what else can you hope for with those you’re close to other than run the risk of becoming estranged? When you come back this time you’ll realize you’ve outgrown your city, and when the time comes you will return to Aligarh discarding the childish notions that you don’t like it there or you miss home. Then this feeling won’t be restricted to just Aligarh or Bhopal — wherever you live in the world you’ll think despondently about this heart and memory. The basic demand of life is to keep moving. In order to achieve your goal you have to chase after it, no matter what your fate is or where it’s written. Think about it, your ancestors were from what kind of tribe and clan in Afghanistan? And how many thousands of miles did they come to settle here in Bhopal? And for what? In order to watch the pretty sunsets? Take a stroll by the side of the lake and go on picnics? You may call it the exigencies of life or time, or the lure of the land that drew them here.
But it wasn’t nostalgia or trying to maintain family connections. Sardar Dost Muhammad Khan was not one of their acquaintances, and Rani Kamlapati didn’t tie rakhis on their wrists. If you don’t give up your cowardice, life will disencumber it from you. Everyone’s like that at your age, and maybe I wasn’t all that different.”
All Abba’s letters were peppered with these kinds of lessons. A reference to his life experiences, what he’d read in books, or just some straightforward advice. Oftentimes Abba’s advice was to continue his daily prayers and worship. He tried to follow what Abba had to say as much as possible, but he wasn’t able to detect any constructive effect of this on his thinking or daily life. He continued to stay in Aligarh simply waiting for the year to be over so that he could return to Bhopal. The only thing that was settled was he wouldn’t live in Aligarh anymore but return to Bhopal.
Final exams had begun and Zamir Ahmed Khan pretended to study ever so diligently. He’d received a scholarship from the university he had to feign humble gratitude for, at least in front of his roommates. In the meantime, he unwillingly began to discover his real cognitive limitations, particularly in math, where he couldn’t function very well outside the confines of rote memorization. He had only a slight inkling about these limitations then since he wasn’t studying properly for exams anyway. He left the answer books completely blank for some subjects, getting up and leaving.
One Friday afternoon after his exams had finished he’d eaten lunch after praying namaz just like every Friday and returned to his room, where he was reading a novel — E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Noticing his interest in reading, the senior hostel roommate had given him the book — emphasizing when he gave it to him that the author had dedicated the book to Ross Masood, the grandson of Sir Sayyid, who had once been the vice- chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. That aside, Zamir Ahmed Khan became deeply engrossed in the book, for it tried to articulate important facts of life lost to the haze of history. Zamir Ahmed Khan wanted to talk about the book with the senior hostel roommate, but he asked Zamir for forgiveness and admitted he’d never read it and didn’t plan on reading it in the future. His interest lay in a lighter fare of fiction and poetry. He then presented Zamir with a novel he’d written himself.
Student unrest had been growing steadily over the past weeks and months along with the demand not to meddle with the character of the university. The old vice-chancellor had left the university, and, according to student leaders, the administration had appointed the new one to push through changes of its own liking. Those opposing the proposed changes had facts and figures to prove that Muslim students in the university would have to deal with a whole host of new problems as a result of them. These leaders and their backers claimed that such developments would be a violation of the basic principles that the founder of the university, Sir Sayyid, had crusaded for when establishing the institution. They also claimed that this was part of a well-thought-out, deliberate, anti-Muslim policy being promulgated by the government. The educational backwardness of the Muslim community, their almost nonexistent representation in the government, and the administration’s hypocritical policy were a heated topic of debate and flashpoint in every chai stall, hostel room, and department. Few may have taken part in the debate, but there were a number who spoke in favor of change, especially those connected to the representative of a progressive faction, who were able to answer numbers with numbers and had a slate of facts to refute the other side’s.
The troubles were irrelevant to Zamir Ahmed Khan since his decision to leave was already final. It also seemed to him that the conduct of the anti-change faction was motivated more by emotion than conscience, whereas the proclamations of the reform group appeared more realistic and substantial. In a country that’s fundamentally secular, and where secularism is the bedrock of the constitution, using religion to polarize people and institutions, or to favor or harm a particular community, was such a dubious undertaking that no argument in its favor could hold sway.
He didn’t really go out of his way to talk with people about these issues or put forward his own views. If the topic came up when he was with friends, he’d say a sentence or two, and add that in light of his experience so far, he considered himself someone with firm secularist inclinations. Otherwise he’d say nothing. For the time being, he was trying to locate the characters from A Passage to India in faces scattered around him. Dr. Aziz, Barrister Hamidullah, Advocate Mahmoud Ali, Muhammad Latif, and the Nawab Bahadur on one side, Professor Godbole, Dr. Panna Lal, Mr. and Mrs. Bhattacharya, Magistrate Mr. Das, Mrs. Das, and Mr. Amritrao on the other. Their mutual suspicion and love and hate. The roots reached deep into history.
The writer had stressed the fundamental difference between Hindu and Muslim mentalities and illustrated them with telling details. This difference overshadowed all apparent similarities and dissimilarities, things that Zamir Ahmed Khan himself had never paid attention to. After the country’s independence, the third group of characters in the book — Mr. Fielding, Mrs. Moore, Miss Quested, and so on — could no longer be seen in the same context as in the novel, but reading the book he felt the British had never fully left the country and that the people had never become truly independent. The portrait of Dr. Aziz was such an extraordinary depiction of an Indian Muslim that he seemed to live and breathe all Zamir’s own misfortunes, complexes, biases, and sentimentalities. In Aligarh, he saw living, breathing, walking, talking versions of Dr. Aziz whose case was being dismissed from all the courts because of Independence and Partition. They had to learn how to live without complaints and protests, since there was no other cure except time. Reading the book, he was truly surprised at the author’s knowledge and deep understanding of Indian society.
And why wouldn’t he like it? Just like Dr. Aziz of the novel, he, too, enjoyed mosques, minarets, the call to prayer, formal greetings, poetry, and an atmosphere of manners and courtesy. How could life be imagined without Eid, Bakra Eid, Shab-e Barat? Also, there wasn’t any chance for these things to be mixed up with politics. What did this atmosphere of doubt and suspicion mean in the country where Gandhi had sacrificed his life for the sake of brotherly harmony? And where Nehru had fought to the very end to build bridges between the hearts of his countrymen? This kind of thinking could only be the product of a diseased mind. True, from time to time things happened in the country that shouldn’t happen — communal riots and arson and killing. But what was at its root? That same fundamental ignorance of people, which Sir Sayyid in his own way had played a part in eradicating and which the present government, for its part, was trying to mend. In the seventh decade of the twentieth century, the importance of religion had changed: this plain and simple fact that the so-called student leaders failed to understand. Maybe more time was needed for them to understand things as they truly were.
These and similar ideas, fully formed and half-baked, formed the capital, principal, and investment of the life he’d lived up until then.
One Friday afternoon after namaz and lunch, Zamir Ahmed Khan was reading the final pages of A Passage to India in his room, fan on high, when the ruckus outside seemed to enter right into the room and the sounds of people chanting slogans filled his ears. Someone knocked on the door and delivered a collective invitation instructing him to come outside armed with a rod from his mosquito net. Before he knew what was happening he found himself in the middle of an uncontrollable crowd besieging the quarters where some students were protecting the vice-chancellor, whom they’d taken pity on — the crowd threatening to kill the “coward,” “traitor,” “sellout.”
Ahtesham, Manzoor. “A Mistake.” In The Tale of the Missing Man. Translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018, pp. 109-113.
English translation copyright © 2018 by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark. Published 2018 by Northwestern University Press. Originally published in Hindi in 1995 as Dastan-e Lapata, copyright Manzoor Ahtesham. All rights reserved.
Q&A with the Author and the Translators
Public Seminar: Manzoor, in 2007, New York Magazine cited your novel Dastan-e Lapata, originally published in 1995, as one of “the world’s best untranslated novels.” Eleven years later, Northwestern University Press publishes the first English version of it, translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark. To begin with a provocative question, was this novel even meant for an English-speaking audience? In other words, whom did you originally write this novel for? What kind of readership did you have in mind?
Manzoor Ahtesham: The write-up in New York Magazine was a big surprise. I am not tech-savvy and it wasn’t until much later, after 2007, I touched the keyboard of a computer for the first time. Someone from the younger lot in the family showed me the piece on Google. I was deeply surprised, and happy as a writer who had worked very hard on this book. It felt as if I had achieved my aim, and was more than I expected. While I try to be meticulous and work through three or four drafts of my works, including The Tale of the Missing Man, published in 1995. It received some favorable reviews which I valued, but the overall response was not exceptional. This New York Magazine citation more than compensated for that, though I never doubted the intent of Hindi reviewers.
While writing the novel I had a design and an idea, and it was primarily written for a Hindi-speaking audience. I had no idea that Jason and Ulrike would make it possible to reach the English-speaking audience: it meant a lot of time and hard work for them. The English reincarnation of my novel is so moving, it’s stolen my heart from the Hindi original — in the best way. The book will have a large readership. I am quite certain.
Public Seminar: Jason and Ulrike, you were the ones to finally translate Manzoor’s milestone in Indo-Muslim literature into English. Could you tell us about when and why you first read the novel, what your initial reaction to it was like, and when and how you decided to translate it?
Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark: When we first read the novel, we were struck by many things: Manzoor’s sensitive portrayal of the Indian Muslim community in Bhopal, the nuanced portraits of Muslim family life, his sense of history, and, perhaps above all, an unreliable and devious anti-hero of who plays with forms of narrative, and the genre of autobiography, in striking ways. Our initial reaction was that this was a novel that in many important ways paid homage to the Persian “dastaan” tradition of episodic, heroic storytelling, while simultaneously offering a subtle subversion of this tradition suited for the present day and age. It’s a novel that asks the important question: “How did we end up where we are today?” Where the “we” is the narrator, the Indian Muslim community, and post-Independence India as a whole. While the question is in many ways unanswerable, Manzoor’s complex and vibrant answer had all of the ingredients for great literature. His is a voice and this is a book that ought to be heard in the English-speaking world, and this sense of urgency and mission made the decision to translate it easy.
Public Seminar: Manzoor, in your preface to the novel, you claim that the novel is not autobiographical even though there are many parallels between you and the fictional main character Zamir Ahmad Khan: “I believe that every human being in this world is compelled to live with a character born from his imagination,” you write, “[t]elling the difference between the imagined and the person imagining the imagined turns out to be just as difficult as it is for Sufis and saints and the enlightened to distinguish between Ishvar and Allah. I call this character my missing man: even though it may be a flower that blossoms from my own imagination, it is I who is most ignorant of its fragrance.” Could you tell us a little about the process of writing The Tale of the Missing Man ? How did this tale develop in your imagination and how did you approach the task of writing it down?
Manzoor Ahtesham: There’s nothing autobiographical that’s not mixed with the imaginary and fictitious. Writing, like the culinary arts would not be a dish worth serving without a dose of imagination. I have held this truth because none other exists! Zamir in the text is only coincidentally a Muslim — the same thing can occur to any person belonging to whichever religion or whatever part of the world. I have chosen a Muslim protagonist so that I may talk more authoritatively about things concerning him, including the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya.
Public Seminar: Jason and Ulrike, could you, likewise, give us a little insight into the process of translating The Tale of the Missing Man ? How did you familiarize yourself with the novel and its author, what was it working like as a team, and what were the main challenges and pleasures that you faced in the process?
Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark: Between the two of us, we had written quite extensively on Hindi writers belonging to the Indian Muslim community, including Manzoor’s work, and studied the translation of Manzoor’s 1986 modern classic, Sukha Bargad — A Dying Banyan — (Jason). We were fortunate to have the opportunity very early on in the translation process to be able to spend time with Manzoor in the US, and were lucky to continue this in-person collaboration again in Bhopal on several occasions and again in the US. The best part of the collaborative process was that we were able to bring our different backgrounds to bear in the most fruitful ways possible to the translation. And it made the process of translation a far less lonely process. While it took more time to complete the book since two people had to be happy with the translation instead of just one, being able to put our combined creativity to such good use more than compensated for the additional time needed.
Public Seminar: How much prior knowledge of the history of India and the Hindu-Muslim conflict do you think is needed in order to fully grasp The Tale of the Missing Man and identify with its main character Zamir Ahmad Khan? And a related question: What might you expect from the novel’s exposure to an English speaking audience?
Manzoor Ahtesham, Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark: Of course, the more the reader knows, the more she may get out of reading the novel. That said, while the Hindu-Muslim conflict is certainly a strand that runs through the book, the novel and its protagonist can be appreciated on many literary levels that have little to do with the larger Hindu-Muslim conflict. It is precisely the departure from the standard themes and tropes of social realism that makes the novel such a fascinating text. Unlike many characters in modern Hindi fiction, the protagonist is not the typical victim of societal forces, nor can he be reduced to his Muslim identity. Our hope is that English speaking audiences will read the book and widen their ideas about what Indian, and Hindi literature can be about.
Manzoor Ahtesham is an Indian writer who was born in Bhopal. He is the author of five novels and several short-story collections in Hindi, many of which have received accolades and awards. In 2003, Ahtesham was honored by the government of India for his contributions to literature.
Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark received a National Endowment of the Arts grant to translate The Tale of the Missing Man. They are both based in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.