Fictions and Polemics

C. M. Naim. Ambiguities of Heritage: Fictions and Polemics. Karachi: City Press, 1999. 213 pp. Rs. 225/-. ISBN 969-8380-19-1.

For a good forty years Professor C.M. Naim of the University of Chicago has led the field of Urdu literature and Indo-Muslim culture in North America.

In the United States, Urdu studies has been an under-developed field. There are many reasons for this. In part it is due to perceptions of the difficulty of its script (in comparison with Nagari and the Roman scripts). In addition, South Asian studies as an academic field grew either out of classical Orientalism -- which tended to favor Sanskrit and "Hindu-Buddhist" studies -- or on Cold War security studies which looked to political science and electoral politics and tended to give short shrift to language, literature and the study of the arts in general. Indo-Muslim culture, not fitting neatly into either of these two foci, was routinely under-represented.

When C.M. Naim began to teach at the University of Chicago in the 1960s this began to change. By this time a generation or two of historians and social scientists had been trained in Urdu as well as their major disciplines, and Muslim South Asia had begun to represent an attractive area of research. Prof. Naim, in addition to his pedagogy, contributed to the volume of literary texts available for study at all levels of language training. This included basic primers, readers, and translations of numerous canonical Urdu poets, both classical and modern, reformist literature from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prose by Qurratulain Hyder and others, and, last year, an annotated translation of the autobiographical Zikr-i Mir (OUP Delhi 1999) of the great 18th century poet Mir Taqi Mir. In his time Naim has also championed lesser-known but up-and-coming poets such as Parveen Shakir and Ifti Nasim. All this aside, some would say that Naim's most enduring legacy is the Annual of Urdu Studies, North America's sole academic journal for Urdu. Naim founded and edited Urdu Studies, stewarding it through seven issues and establishing it as a reputable publishing venue. (Md. Umar Memon brought out the 2-volume 15th issue in April 2000 from Madison, Wisconsin, the journal's home for the past decade.)

Such a range of contributions to a beleaguered field tempts me to acknowledge C.M. Naim as Urdu Studies' "sole giant" in North America, casting a long, broad shadow over the rest of us. Ambiguities of Heritage represents a concise summary of his "eclectic, perhaps seemingly eccentric" career, to borrow the author's own words from the introduction.

The volume contains five short "fictions" and eighteen "polemics," but these categories are somewhat misleading. A couple of the "fictions" do not read so very differently from some of the reflections labeled "polemic;" and the polemics -- many of which have appeared over the years in a variety of journals -- cover an array of topics and formats, from scholarly essays to sketches of personal reminiscence to reviews of books and cultural events. An example of this genre-blurring is "Two Days," which is about the events of August 15, 1947 and January 30, 1948, narrated from the point of view of a Muslim schoolboy in U.P. The piece reads like a short story and conveys the emotional impact of fiction. Indeed, each fiction, as the author explains, was composed as part of a process of working through myriad issues surrounding the responsibilities of the public and private identities he embraced as an academic immigrant to the United States in the early 1960s.

Long an admirer of Professor Naim, I have come to respect him all the more for his polemical pieces. He brings to his writing both the erudition that so often characterizes a birth and upbringing in the pre-Independence Indo-Muslim aristocratic milieu, and a relentlessly open-eyed, analytical critique of the politics of Muslim identity in postcolonial South Asia as it has been constructed by Muslims, their Others and by state policies. He offers useful insight into where and how one seeks to find the path of integrity through the minefield of being an Indian Muslim. The course plotted by these polemics adheres rigorously to secular and democratic values as the basis from which to understand the overlapping histories of South Asian nation states and their remarkable diasporas. "Minority Rights or Human Rights?" discusses the Shah Bano case not only in terms of the Indian polity but also in the larger context of a world community, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the vexed issue of how to protect minorities and individual rights simultaneously. It is particularly gratifying to see documented Naim's consistent choices against the adoption of an ahistorical religious identity in lieu of an integrative ethnic identity. He demonstrates the stakes that Indian Muslims, as South Asians, have in Pakistan and Bangladesh. All of these countries are grappling with similar issues as post-colonial nation states, especially how to achieve a balance in rights, whether Muslims represent the majority or the minority population. Moreover, the implications of these ruminations are far-reaching: the essay on Iqbal, Jinnah and Pakistan kept bringing to my mind what the logical end might be of the Quebecois claim to have inscribed in the Canadian constitution the acknowledged status of a "distinct society."

To call all non-fiction "polemics," as the author does, whether the articles be scholarly or journalistic, can be understood as an acknowledgment that nothing to which we turn our minds, pens, or keyboards in this day and age can honestly purport to be disinterested. Despite familiarity with Professor Naim's work on Urdu literature, I read with renewed appreciation his historical essay "Urdu in the Premodern Period: Synthesis or Particularism?" which was first published in 1978 in the Bombay journal New Quest. It is rare and difficult to contribute to the field of Urdu literary history without one's point of view being reduced to "for" or" against" (in other words, whether one is pro-Muslim or anti-). Because Urdu literature has come to serve as such a cultural icon, it often happens that critical analysis of the literature gets read (by those with personal identity invested) as criticism of Muslims themselves. But Naim takes a critical, historical, unsentimental approach when arguing against the claim that Urdu has functioned as a synthesizing apparatus for bridging Hindu and Muslim culture. Rather, he argues, "[Urdu's] use actually provided a very limited number of points of contact, which declined with the rise of Hindu self-consciousness and nationalism in North India in the nineteenth century," Urdu literature actually tended to manifest "disourage[ment of] synthesis and to encourage exclusiveness and particularism." This is an important argument, and one that we can expect to see met with hostility, even horror, among certain secularists in India as well a number of nostalgic Urduwallahs. Far from "blaming the victims" as some might be tempted to understand this perspective, Naim's observation provides a useful point of departure for coming to terms with the increased communalization of Urdu, a previously non-regional and non-territorialized language, the increased propriety of the Pakistani state over the language, and its visible decline in India due in quite some part to the state's failed proprietorship. As the late Eqbal Ahmad once observed, Urdu has suffered dually from a devastating neglect at the hands of the Indian state and a devastating affection from the Pakistani state. There is in this essay much solid information available to the interested reader. It complements Naim's ruminations on "The Situation of the Urdu Writer" as does "Exile, Displacement, Hijrat -- What's in a Name!" and they all make for absorbing reading.

Another kind of "polemic" in this volume deals with the ambiguities of heritage insofar as they are perceived and negotiated by an immigrant in the U.S.A. "On Becoming an American" and "Some Thoughts on Christian Muslim Dialogues" were my two favorites in this category. The first is an autobiographical reflection with a fictive feel. In retelling the story of his rather bizarre and disorienting arrival in the U.S. in 1957, the author offers up an explanation of how or why he overcame, even reveled sufficiently in, his ambivalence about this country to get out of bed on a cold, wintry Chicago morning and appear for his citizenship interview. His reflections on Christian Muslim dialogues complement his "Outrage of Bernard Lewis," reminding us that we live in a world where there may not be anything as clear-cut as a universal truth, but there are moments where situational truths can be gleaned, if we work hard enough at finding them. C.M. Naim shows that he is willing to do this hard work, and also that he is absolutely unwilling to be co-opted in facile fashion by anyone representing the cause-of-the-month. Indeed, it would be a committed ideologue indeed who could resist admiration for the ways in which unabashedly liberal, Enlightenment-based secular democratic values permeate these writings as a corpus.

City Press in Karachi is to be applauded for bringing out the volume, as is Ajmal Kamal, the friend whom Naim credits with the initiative. I was happy to see that the book is reasonably priced at Rs. 225/- in Pakistan, and to note that there is an Indian distributor who will, I hope, purvey the collection at a comparable rate in India. The book is available on the web through


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