Remembering an ‘outsider’

Obituary Muhammad Umar Memon

Remembering an ‘outsider’

Some people are born lucky. Everything they touch turns to gold. Some are not so lucky. They work steadily, in an earnest sort of way, plodding along, and what they finally achieve ought to earn them a round of plaudits. But they are often overlooked and sidelined. The adage that those who are slow and steady win the race no longer holds true in an age bemused by showmanship and posturing. Clever manipulation of the masses’ idiosyncrasies, naivete and obsession brings success.

Muhammad Umar Memon (1939-2018) was a scholar of repute, like his father Abdul Aziz Memon whose erudition was acknowledged throughout the Arab world. Umar had no hope of coming anywhere near the fame his father had deservedly achieved. Yet in his own persevering way he did more to promote Urdu literature than most of us. I fear, in the absence now of committed persons like him, no one would be able to better his achievement. Not a well-known figure on the literary scene and not always on good terms with writers, even with friends, he unobtrusively and indefatigably made his mark. But he will either remain an outsider or will be damned with faint praise.

Now that he is gone, it is time to consider in brief some of his accomplishments. He almost single-handedly edited the prestigious Annual of Urdu Studies for many years. Finally a paucity of funds and his own faltering health brought the endeavour to an end. As a translator his command of both Urdu and English (we can throw in Arabic and Persian also) enabled him to translate with equal facility from Urdu into English and vice versa. He also wrote short stories in Urdu. A collection of his stories entitled Tareek Gali (Dark Lane) has been published. But somehow, either because of his other engagements -- he was a member of the teaching staff at the Wisconsin University and retired as a professor -- or through a lack of confidence in his own creative ability, he made little progress as a writer of fiction. His doctoral thesis, "Ibn Taimia’s Struggle against Popular Religion" was published from Germany a long time ago. He never attempted to write any other book of a similar nature.

Let me begin with his Annual of Urdu Studies. It was, as the name suggests, primarily oriented towards critical discussions of various aspects of Urdu literature, mostly modern but keeping an eye on its classical dimensions also. The articles were usually in English but Memon saw to it that critical writing in Urdu, where it really mattered, was also translated into English and included. Translations of Urdu short stories and poems featured in the annual as well, which recorded, in brief, the state of Urdu studies in English in the USA and elsewhere. It was the best chronicle of its kind, striving to make available to readers in English all that Urdu had to offer as noteworthy.

It is tragic that it was almost ignored in Pakistan, something which Memon found lamentable, and barely evinced an interest in India. It subsisted on a shoestring basis and when its funding dried up it had to go under. What a pity that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which ought to be dubbed now as the ‘Ministry of Utmost Unhappiness’, couldn’t even spare, say twenty thousand dollars, for it. After all, it catered to Urdu and was a light in the pervading gloom. These guys throw away millions of dollars on inane projects. Maybe they had never heard of the Annual.

While he dithered about whether to keep on writing stories in Urdu or not he made up for his lack of enterprise by translating foreign literature extensively into Urdu. It is a matter of surprise that, almost deliberately, he shunned, for the major part of his career, writers in English and restricted his liking to European and modern Arabic literature. Either he found distasteful those who wrote in English or there was some subconscious motivation or a sense of alienation behind the dislike is something we cannot find out now.  Meanwhile he did unearth some nuggets for the Urdu readers, like Sándor Márai, a little known Hungarian writer, or the essays collected in Al Andalus which help us to see the rich diversity of Muslim Spain from a fresh perspective.  Nothing like it is available in Urdu. In the translations his prose sometimes tends to be quirky, the choice of words, and the syntax itself, rather odd. Like someone at loggerheads with the language, having lost its feel. These minor infelicities can be ignored. Some of the novels translated by him remain unpublished.

Now to the most intricate aspect of his creative urge, that is, the original stories in Urdu found in Tareek Gali. Not many to go by but we have a toehold here. The social and political scene is combustible enough, needing only a spark to set off a gargantuan explosion. We wait with bated breath for it to happen but somehow there are series of postponements only. There is no finality; delays abound; nothing comes to an end. The traumas dilate and shrink, judgments are cloudy or held back. The whole setup, the background, the foreground, the characters and the pressures impinging on them are static. No one wants to press the button because the ensuing demolition may be too horrifying. An impasse where it is hard to make up one’s mind. The stories are not slight but the menace in them is muted. The narrator is hesitant. As I said in my review of Tareek Gali in 1990 that the potential is there "but can he also forget what he has so carefully learned?" It was always going to be hard and, I believe, he finally gave up.

Read also: Citizen of a language called Urdu

He was apparently a decent man but with a sullenness perpetually lurking within him. He took offence readily at what were nothing more than peccadillos. He also calmed down after a while, realising that the display of temper hurt him more than it hurt others. I always heard the news of his arrival with trepidation. I had no idea who I would welcome eventually, a resentful person or someone merely complacent or even indifferent? He made you feel as if he had a score to settle. We have to, in fact must, accept our friends, warts and all. I am glad I knew him. "Knew" is the wrong word though. He was essentially a very private person.

Remembering an ‘outsider’