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In Half Light, Universe of Possibilities Glimpsed: Asif Raza and M. U. Memon Dialogues

Asif Raza, M. U. Memon

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 Late 2020, Asif Raza, poet, man of letters, whose self-translated Urdu verses have graced our platform wrote me about a huge stack of correspondence nesting in his laptop; emails exchanged with the late Urdu critic and editor of the Annuals of Urdu Studies published from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, Mohammad Umar Memon (1939-2018).

Suppressing my mounting excitement, I popped the question; he answered in the affirmative. In remembrance of his late friend Memon and that experience of what it is to become human through conversation, Raza agreed to to sift through the correspondence between 2011 and 2013 and curate this trove of illuminations for The Beacon.

At first blush, they appear to be exchanging laundry lists of their own readings. On deeper reflection, the e-mails evidence highly refined, cosmopolitan sensibilities sharing in the ecstasies of literary influences that are like magic casements, “…opening on the foam/of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn” (John Keats). They also trace the profound human need and desire for friendship located in the shared, often unstated recognition of the universal legacies of reading, of story-telling, of the pleasures to be savoured in the libraries of longing and, belonging.

For an age rendered inane by socialised ADHD, fear and violence, these dialogues are magic casements.— Ashoak Upadhyay


“Isn’t writing an act of rebellion? One does not accept the world as it is; one rather recreates it in his own image of what it should be. A virtual, parallel world.” M.U. Memon

“Yes, writing is an act of rebellion–metaphysical rebellion I would say. A willful act of transcendence. It is an attempt to overthrow the fiction of reality in order to establish the reality of fiction” Asif Raza


Asif Raza


Wed, Sept 28, 2011, at 8:47 PM

Asif Raza Sahib,

I feel highly indebted to you for a copy of your latest collection of poems “Tanha’i ke Tehvar” which arrived yesterday.

As of now, I’ve only had time to look at some of your poems and your preface. My initial impression is that these are a bit different from the fare that is currently being dished out as poetry.

I am grateful to Raza Mir for having introduced us to each other. However, I do think his admiration for me is often exaggerated. I’m just an ordinary man, all right, ordinary with a difference. I have always tried to keep myself permanently exiled from “expertise,” “focus,” “specialty,” and such. They tend to limit one’s perspective. I, on the other hand, feel at home when things appear in the half-light, their dimness subsuming a universe of possibilities.

I was wondering whether you know of The Annual of Urdu Studies, which I edit. If you don’t, you can access the current and all the back issues at our website And if it is something that appeals to you, would you consider writing something on Urdu poetry?

Well then, thanks again for your book.


m u memon


Wed, Sep 28, 2011, at 10:29 PM

To: Asif raza

For you a poem, “For Antonio Gamoneda,” by the Spanish poet Juan Antonio Masoliver Rodens (which I forgot to send with my previous email).

I wanted to write like Antonio

Gamoneda, so I went to León

and, after visiting the cathedral

to ask God to forget me,

I arrived at the poet’s house.

Maestro, I said, tell me,

reveal to me the secret of poetry.

I’m no maestro, just a dealer

of useless things.  And among these things

poetry is like a frigid

goddess proffering her gifts.

Can you imagine? If you want to write

like I do, write

and erase and write again.

Write like yourself, if you can,

or go to the melon patch and steal one

and go home to savor

the sweet lament of melons.

Writing comes before

not writing.  Therein lies the secret

that has nourished poetry both great

and small and otherwise.  And here

in León there is a cathedral

and a few bars where God

is always, while I write

here, whether or not I’m alone,

I don’t know, whether or not I’m alone.


Fri. Sept 30, 2011, at 1:23 PM

Mohtarami Memon sahib:

Thank you for your e-letter.

I too am thankful to Raza Mir for bringing us together.  I am impressed by the fact that, although a self-acclaimed progressive, he suffers a decadent like me with relish, (a streak of masochism must run deep-down through the layers of his psyche.). As for his attitude of reverence towards you, he is right because a nimbus of fame does surround your name. Thus, there is no use trying to cheat your destiny by undue modesty. Rather you should bow to it: Amor fati.

Your introduction of yourself to me reminds me of Pascal’s distinction between the mathematical and the intuitive mind.

If reality ever reveals itself to us, it is through a veil of mist. But only a few have the humility to surrender to its mystery. Or the courage and passion to make it a pathway towards the absolute.

I have read quite a few Hispanic poets but Juan Antonio Rodens is not one of them. Quite a cerebral poem. “If you want to write like me …Write like yourself.” Reminds me of Rilke who, advising his young friend how to write poetry, says in his, Letters: “There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself”. “And do not let even God rob you of your solitude,” one could have added.

As for the Annuals, not only do I know it but I bought one issue from you in 2007. And have used your website too. Your mention of it reminds me that a long time ago, as part of my exchange on Urdu poets and poetry with Francis Pritchett, I once drew a sketchy comparison between the intricacies of Mallarme’s and Ghalib’s poetry. She suggested that I develop it further and send it to you (something which I never did).

As for writing something on Urdu poetry, alas, my forte is not writing on poetry but writing poetry. But should I stray into that territory and haul back something worthwhile, you will be the first to know.




Mon, Oct 3, 2011, at 10:42 AM

Biradaram Asif Raza:

Your eloquence, such perfect control over language, is almost frightening. Inexplicable inhibition takes over me as I labor to respond to your e-mail. (I try not to allow incursion of ego in the way of acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the other). I wish I had known you earlier.

I see affinities in many things you have said. Resonances of what I have myself felt and often failed to articulate. The amazing thing is that all these are self-evident truths yet so inaccessible to most people.

I wish you had accepted Pritchett’s suggestion. May I ask you to venture into that realm?

I do not get many good articles for the AUS. In fact, I personally don’t like the kind of articles Urduwallas usually write. Mallarme and Ghalib would be ideal. Will you?

So long my friend,



Sat, Oct 8, 2011, at 1:57 PM  

Dear Memon sahib:

Your generous remarks are more a measure of your magnanimity than of my worth.

I guess human beings, whether individually or collectively, have always preferred a comforting lie to a discomforting truth. Who would want to be an occupant of the haunting void called existence if one could comfortably lounge in the blissful heaven of ignorance? Why listen to the frightening “silence of spaces” if you can be privy to the celestial music of luminous spheres?

I am impressed that you are not among those who shrink from self-disclosure. I guess only he can do so who does not have the Cyclops-eye on his forehead, that is, the monstrosity called Ego.

Two days ago a package arrived at my doorsteps, unannounced. Turned out to be a surprise gift from you—a collection of books translated by you. Thanks. I was thrilled to see Gabriel Marcia’s  and Milan Kundera’s novellas included in the package.  Some time ago, I read a laudatory review of your Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” (translated by you as “Apni Sogwar Bewaon ki Yaden”). It was by   Mansur Alam (who, coincidentally, also reviewed my “Bujhe Rangon ki Raunaq, in Shabkhoon Khabarnama).

I will heed the message on your tucked-in handwritten note and read Kundera’s Angare (Embers) first.

I need you to know that I highly admire your valuable service to the world of literature. I regard you as a bridge-builder between literary continents.

Between my poetry and my academic work (which soaks up most of my time like a giant sponge), I have little time left to do much besides.  Thus I humbly submit that though I will earnestly try to fulfill your wish, you will forgive me if I am not able to carry it through.




Sun, Oct 9, 2011, at 11:23 AM

Biradaram Asif raza Sahib,

I have no words or the ability to respond to your exquisite feelings. I am only thankful.

Most people praise me but the labor of the exercise is too obvious to me. Or condemn me outright. But I have come to a point in my life when that does not sadden me anymore.

I hope I bear no ill will to people but I do have a nasty habit: I could not not speak my mind

I am glad the package of books reached you safely. Expect to receive more in the future.

It is not necessary to read them all. Keep them as a gift from a friend. But, yes, I do insist that you read “Angaare” first and let me know your comments, on the novel, and the translation.

Marquez’s novella to which you refer was my first translation after a decade of silence. I had not written anything in Urdu for a long time. Therefore, not being sure of my “dastgah” in Urdu, I was not entirely satisfied with my translation.

I have this damnable habit; I want to nudge Urdu from being a spoken to a written language. Urdu cannot handle long sentences. But they are sometimes necessary, as when what they convey is implicated structurally into the texture of the content. Thus I purposely retain the length which people find odd, as something that does not read like Urdu. But in saying so, they forget that they are reading, not listening. The ear is incapable of keeping track of sentences longer than half the line. But the eye suffers no such handicap. If you lose track, I can always backtrack and easily move forward.

I am glad you laid it out honestly. So I will not insist that you write an article for AUS. Nonetheless, I will ask you to send me any poems you might have written after “Tanha’i ke Tehvar”. Also, I would like to read your comments on Faruqi Sahib’s novel “Kai Chand They…” If they are part of a personal letter, send me the part that relates to the novel.




Fri. Oct 14, 2011, at 11:36

Dear Memon Sahib:

Thanks for your e-letter.

Long ago, I read your translations of Bapsi Sidhwa’s “Kagra Kaho: (first chapter of her novel) and of “Panse ka Khel” in the annual issue of Symbol.

Critical views clash on what a translator should or should not aim at while translating. As for me, I am still partial to the view (which means I do not have a doctrinaire allegiance to it) that a translation should not come across like a translation, but that it should have ebb and flow and the feel of the language in which it is translated. I think you rendered Bapsi in Urdu extremely well.

In my less than expert opinion, it is the sense that carries the sentence along as far as it needs

to be carried. Complex thought demands complex sentence structure. In Faulkner, you come upon sentences that are five or six pages long. Surely they do not read like Standard English, do they?

I have completed just one short poem since (others are not yet finished).

Called up from a subterranean zone and darkly written (which perhaps may be the case with a large number of my poems), I can send it to you if you wish (even if it earns me the ire of your readers.).

As for my comments on Faruqi Sahib’s novel “Kai Chand They…,” yes they are indeed a part of my correspondence with him. I forwarded them to him in several instalments, (the first of which he translated in Urdu and published in his Shabkhoon Khabarnama). As such, it will take me a while to edit them before I send them out to you.




Sun, Oct 23, 2011, at 2:29 PM


You know, when Bapsi asked me to translate THE CROW EATERS, I read it again and became doubtful of my ability to render it satisfactorily into Urdu. I had read it more than 30 years ago and liked it immensely. This time though, I felt somewhat differently. (I believe I have grown).

You are the second person who has said kind words about the translation. The fact is: it turned out to be one of the most difficult texts I have ever translated. Though I am not entirely satisfied with my translation, I hear it will be out fairly soon. Of course, I will send you a copy. In the meantime, the pdf of the whole novel is hereby attached, in case you may want to plod through it before translation.

Send me the new poem and never mind the ire of readers. One writes for oneself.  The art is compromised with the slightest awareness of the reader. Flaubert was so finicky about it that he never even wanted to publish anything he wrote. Isn’t writing an act of rebellion? One does not accept the world as it is; one rather recreates it in his own image of what it should be. A virtual, parallel world. Only in art can opposites exist peacefully, without one trying to eliminate or annihilate the other. I believe Kundera said it.

Your comments about translation are thought-provoking. I will try to learn from them. In fact, I will try to strike a balance between your comments and my thoughts.

Re Faruqi Sahib’s novel, take your time to gather your comments together.


m u memon


Sun, Oct 23, 2011, at 10:12

Dear Memon Sahib:

Thank you for yet another package of your translations. I am awed, among other things, by the sheer volume of your literary output.

I am ‘snailing’  along “Angare” (which, as a deep reader, is my way of reading a serious work of art).

Waiting to hear from you,




Tue, Nov 1, 2011, at 1:45 PM

Dear Memon Sahib:

Thanks for your acceptance of my poems for AUS.

How I wish we meet someday!

I introduced you to Faruqi Sahib as my “new friend.” Responding, he praised you profusely; for your “scholarly erudition”, and your “absolutely unselfish love for and service to Urdu literature”.

I read your introduction to Snake Catchers”. I regard it as a profound treatise.

At many points, I was thrilled to recognize my own views reflected in it.

Yes, writing is an act of rebellion-metaphysical rebellion I would say. A willful act of transcendence. It is an attempt to overthrow the fiction of reality in order to establish the reality of fiction. An effort to replace the external world with the inner one in which polarities are held together in dialectical tension.

You do your own yard work! I have my yard taken care of by others. But at times, I let it be l run over by weeds.Then, when I look at it— overgrown with weeds— I feel a bond of kinship with it that I never do when it is primly cut and neatly trimmed.

Another package of five books! I am overwhelmed.




Sun, Nov 26, 2011, at 5:38 PM

Dear Asif,

Thanks for sending me the new poem. It will appear in the next AUS. Yes! Indeed! But whatever slings and arrows fly your way, I will be happy to take them on my chest. Who knows this might prove to be the only redeeming act I‘ve engaged in. In the meantime, if you have translated some more of your poems, send them on as well.
But it is only natural that we meet. It is preordained. Sooner or later the thought would have occurred to you, as it did to me.

This reminds me of a few lines of a poem by Sarojni Naidu   I read in my high school English class at Aligarh:

If you call me, I will come
Swifter than desire
Swifter than the lightning’s feet
Shod with plumes of fire

But these lines should not be taken as a veiled expression of my impatience, or a desire to foist myself on you. Yes, we will meet someday, but naturally.

I am gratified to learn that Faruqi Sahib had some nice things to say about me.

The problem with translation is no different than the original in any language, which, by its nature, is equipped to deal with the most mundane transactions. One has no idea what a writer thought or perceived and what he/she was able to express. And poets, well, they subvert the language to a point where it melts away, revealing in its wake a nebula where consciousness retrieves the hazy vestiges, the approximations of the thought, the feeling that might have been intended. Recently, I was translating a piece by Muhammad Hasan Askari (it will appear in the upcoming AUS) where he says about Sartre:

“He says that a poet does not use words at all. A prose writer can enter inside words and examine them closely. This is beyond a poet. He observes words from outside only. Like a prose writer, he cannot describe any object. Instead, he creates a new object in words opposite that object. He presents verbal substitutes of objects. His lines are therefore just descriptive sentences; they are objects. Poets are thus “creators” in the strict sense of the word. As an example Sartre quotes the following lines of Rimbaud:

Oh seasons! Oh castles!

What soul is faultless?

(O saisons! O chateaux!

Quelle  anm est sans defaut?)

Sartre says:

Nobody is questioned; nobody is questioning; the poet is absent. And the question involves no answer, or rather it is its own answer. Is it therefore a false question? But it would be absurd to believe that everybody has his faults. As Breton said of Saint-Pol Roux, “If he had meant it, he would have said it.” Nor did he mean to say something else. He asked an absolute question. Conferred upon the beautiful word “soul” an interrogative existence. The interrogation has become a thing as the anguish of Tintoretto became a yellow sky. It is no longer a signification, but a substance. It is seen from the outside, and Rimbaud invites us to see it from the outside with him. Its strangeness arises from the fact that, in order to consider it, we place ourselves on the other side of the human condition, on the side of God”

It was very heartening to note that you found echoes of your own thoughts in my introduction to Snake Catchers. Actually, Naiyer Masud invites the reader to witness “being” in its dazzling underivativeness. It is like watching a painting. Critics, a derivative existence, will tell you what the painting means (with no guarantee that it means what he/she says it means.) NM is not interested in this. He does not ask that you try to understand. Actually, he does not even ask, he is fashioning objects for himself. The most one can do is watch with him. I think I’m raving. This is how I understand it, through raving. Critical writing leaves me cold; it looks to me as fake.

I work in the yard because I love it, the beauty of roses, the sensation of watching a seed germinate and slowly inch its way into this transient world, nothing yesterday, this morning a deceptive blotch, suggestive of aspiring life, tomorrow something in existence, as incontrovertible as your own being, regardless of how long it will or you will last.


Umar (yes, you may call me just that)


Fri, Dec 9, 2011, at 3:40 PM

Dear Umar Sahib:

Thanks for the touching verses. Certainly, one day, we will meet.

I am aware of Sartre’s aesthetics, even if superficially. He grounds it in his ontological and epistemological assumptions. Of pivotal importance in understanding his views is perhaps his

Phenomenology of imagination. Since imagination is a negative, art (painting, music, and poetry) amounts to the annihilation of the real. His theory of the two opposed attitudes toward language exemplified by the two opposed genres namely, prose and poetry, is linked to traditional symbolism. Mallarme referred to the former as ‘reportage’ and the latter as ‘musique’ (Valery likened the one to ‘walking’ or ‘running’ and the other to ‘dancing’). In prose, words are used semantically: they are transparent signs that refer to something beyond themselves. In poetry, words are used asemantically. They are opaque, with substance of their own, have no ulterior reference but are self-referential. They do not represent but present things as a verbal embodiment of reality, reality as metamorphosed. Poetry is thus linked to the inner life of the poet that can only be suggestively conveyed through analogy and symbol.

T.S. Eliot has taken Valery to task for insisting on the absolute disjunction between the language of prose and poetry. I think his criticism applies to Sartre too. Although I lack the ability to discourse on Sartre at the level he demands, I venture to state that his view does seem to congeal into a dogma.

Affectionately yours,



Tue, Dec 13, 2011 at 4:39 PM

Dear Umar Sahib:

The credit naturally goes to the writer who writes the masterpiece. But also to one who

recognizes it as such and makes it available to others through his translation.

Sandor Marai’s  “Angare” is a great short novel. To read it as a psychodrama would be to denigrate it. It is multidimensional in scope and import. It deals with the ineffable mystery of being, with man’s inescapable destiny, as well as the strength and fragility of human relations among other things. But importantly, it does so with impeccable artistry. Sandor provides an example of how the purported disjunction between the language of prose and poetry is untenable.  Abounding in imagery, metaphor, and symbol, his prose is quintessentially poetic.

“Angare” is not a novel to be skimmed. I read almost each of its pages twice or thrice. And I still think I read it too fast, and that I should read it again, this time staying more alert to some of his recurring motifs. Two stand out for me, namely, ‘music” and ‘forest.’ It is noteworthy that he manifestly joins the music motif with the myth of Orpheus. Music! The beguiling call of the sublime threatens our immersion in quotidian existence (akin to the theme of my poem “Seven Sisters”). And, on the other hand, the lure of the jungle, the dark seduction of animality.

To me, Nini is not merely a specific character but élan vital itself, the forward thrust of life,

undaunted and unstoppable.  His views on friendship, which is a dominant motif in his novel, reminds of Nietzsche’s way of looking at it.

As for your translation itself, it is difficult to make a call without having read the original. Yet the fact that it makes such an impact on the reader is in itself a testimony to its success.

It is futile to be a purist and demand complete fidelity to the original. The neologisms in your translation show that, when called for, you do not shy away from “foreignizing’ the target language.

I do so too as long as I can render it palatable to the taste and sensibility of the target readers. However, in my practice pf translation, I prefer to err on the side of the paraphrase (that is, transparency) rather than metaphase (that is literal rendition). On the whole, I try to find a judicious blend of the two.




Fri, Dec 16, 2011, at 7:12 PM

Dear Asif Sahib,

Thanks for your very enlightening and warm –emails (2 of them). I will respond to them later. There are three items that cannot wait:

  1. Send me your new poems
  2. That article of Askari Sahib I quoted from is called “Adab bara’e Adab (or was it Fann bara’e Fann?)
  3. I’m sending you an article of the late Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu in which he briefly compares the Sufi, especially the Iranian tradition of Existentialism and its Western counterpart. I hope you will enjoy reading it. It is from his book “Creation and the Timeless Order of Things: Essays in Mystical philosophy.” I have translated the whole book (still unpublished). Let me know your general impressions of the piece.

With love,




Sat, Dec 17, 2011, at 4:29 PM

Biradaram Asif Raza Sahib:

Sooner or later you would have known that the person on the other end of your email is not quite as learned as you think. Your knowledge frightens me, though I never found it inaccessible. You mentioned Sartre. I never could appreciate his fiction. It always read nauseatingly formulaic, as though it was an instrument to expound his philosophy, phlegmatically ignoring the inherent autonomy of fiction. I know I am being harsh. He isn’t that bad. But my recourse to an extreme statement is simply to dramatize the point, to bring it home forcefully. On the other hand, even though perhaps not quite as great as Sartre, Camus, his politics aside, does seem to have some feeling for the autonomy of literature.

The way you have elucidated the difference between prose and poetry, citing Mallarme and Valery is very informative for me. Actually, I now understand that quoted passage from Askari better. I did understand it before too, but simply as something that rang true. Although I could not have laid it out so succinctly, neatly, and clearly myself. And what was a mere suggestion unfurled for me in its astonishing immediacy. I could see why poetry was in its essence different from prose, why it was in its very nature an act of defiance that it was another world, whose truth lay in the poet’s imagination, not in reality as experienced in the day-to-day world that it dealt with the “end things” of existence. So my friend, thank you for sharing your enlightening thoughts with me.

Last night I sent you a piece by Toshihiko Izutsu. Reading your comments about Sartre, I began to wonder what “existence” Sartre is talking about. With my slight, perhaps misreading of speculative Sufism, especially its idea of existence, I thought he is too much caught up in the individual (perhaps with good reason). At that point I recalled Izutsu’s article and thought I might send it to you, not to condemn Sartre or the Western tradition of “existentialism,” but only to see whether you also agree with him about the element of “lyricism” that he sees in the exposition of “existentialism” in Heidegger and others.

You know, I’m grateful to you for another reason too. “Angare “must have been out for over two years now. It simply went unnoticed. Not a single review, not a single comment by anyone. I didn’t translate to stick a few feathers in my cap. I so much wanted to share Marai’s genius with others. Show them a beautiful thing. Hoping that someday it inspires them to write something like that novel. So now when you say you have read every page 2 or 3 times, slowly, I feel that only now I have succeeded in what I’d set out to do. A single reader like yourself is a gift to cherish forever. I was simply swept away by this novel. There is hardly any action, the story of just one evening, and yet so full of things that matter, Being a poet you felt drawn to its two recurrent themes: music and forest.; for me, though, his thoughts about nature of friendship between two male friends was something of a revelation and what he says makes immense sense. I also immensely liked the character of Nini.

I have often found myself lacking in Urdu vocabulary that would capture the “tarz-e ehsas” of writers such as Marai. I’m aware of the staccato rhythm of my prose. I did the best I could with my limed linguistic resources, but also knowing that full justice was not done.




Wed, Dec 28, 2011, at 4:16 PM

Dear Umar Sahib,

If I ever conveyed to you the impression that I was “learned” or knowledgeable, then I was being a charlatan since I know how little I know and tangentially, also, because I regard knowledge per se a dubious virtue.  (I put ‘intellect’ in the same category). What knowledge can we puny humans boast of? Do we not stand, like dumb brutes, stunned, before the Ineffable? Additionally, you have been unfair to yourself in your self-deprecation. I want you to know that I hold you in high esteem for your erudition in the pursuit you have selflessly dedicated yourself to.

You asked if I agree with Izutsu “about the element of lyricism in the exposition of Heidegger he offers”. Luckily, I do have some nodding acquaintance with Heidegger and thus can speak to your query.

The answer is “yes” concerning existentialists, such as Jaspers and Buber (not mentioned by him) and Sartre but “no” when it comes to Heidegger since what marks out Heidegger from all other existentialists is just the opposite, that is to say,  his prose style, which is singularly non-lyrical. His mode of exposition is bloodless—ice-cold and bone-dry, almost entirely dispassionate. The reason may be simple. By design, his ontology is not anthropomorphic, that is not man-centered, but Being-centered. On the contrary, the ‘lyricist s of existence’ such as Jaspers, Buber, and Sartre are human-centered. Thus they speak passionately to and about human subjects.

Quite a few times, I interrupted my reading of Izutsu to ask, given my lack of much knowledge in the field of mystical philosophy, if it was I who was misunderstanding Izutsu’ stance or he who had misread Sartre? In my humble opinion, he is entirely correct in citing Heidegger to assert a similarity between existentialism and wahdat al-wujud. However, while Heidegger grounds das Seindes (beings) into Sein (Being) and thus posits the unity of Being, Sartre never does. Rather he remains in the domain of Cartesian dualism: there are two beings, each irreducible and irreconcilable to the other, namely, ‘en soi’ (the being of nature) and ‘pour soi” (the being of consciousness). While according to Heidegger, human beings (the Dasein) are rooted in Being, Sartre leaves man rootless in the universe. As such, I cannot comprehend the grounds on which Isutzu  infers a similarity between  Sartre’s existentialism and  wahdat al-wujud.

I also have reservations about Izutsu’s comparative analysis of Sufism and existentialism, such as, in my opinion, his out of–context interpretation of the famous chest-nut tree episode from Sartre’s renowned “Nausea”. But I could be wrong.

Your criticism of Sartre is partly well taken. He does take a utilitarian view of literature, more precisely of fiction. Also his fiction does embody his existential tenets. But so does Camus’. I think there is something to be said for letting the fiction write itself rather than forcing it into predetermine ideational channels. Nevertheless, despite that, both Sartre and Camus have still written unforgettable classics.

I am afraid the letter has become too long, otherwise I would have included my comments on your translation of the marvelous novel by Garcia Marquez (which I have read twice with reverent solemnity, and both time, with my eyes brimming with tears).

I will send you the English versions of my poems back to you tomorrow.



Jan, 13, 2012 at 6:19 PM

Dear Asif,

The warmth and kindness with which you talk about me and praise my work is intimidating.

The thought that I may not live up to your high regard places a tremendous burden and responsibility.

Much as I appreciate your words (few have been so generous or forthcoming), I alone know my deficiencies.

I cannot engage with you either about Heidegger or Sartre in any meaningful way. I have read Sartre’s fiction; his other books I did try but could not read them. Likewise, I bought Heidegger’s Being and Time but it lies unread on my shelf. With no background in philosophy or metaphysics, I doubt if I will ever be able to follow the drift of their thought. When I read Isutzu, his thoughts were a discovery. I jumped into them because of my own bias.

What is my bias? Quite simply, Having lived in this country for 47 years, having observed it and the West in general, having realized what they have done to the world, how they have ignored and suppressed recognition and of the contributions of others to their own intellectual and cultural development, I could not miss to note the self-centrism and sense of superiority in most westerners. So when I read Isutzu, his critical comments on Sartre and Heidegger, It seemed to corroborate my gnarled impression about the West.

I once read a book (Dick Teresi: Lost Discoveries, The Ancient Roots of modern Science—from the Babylonians to the May.) I thought it was on the Arabs, but it turned out that the West has ridden roughshod over just about every culture and civilization. All one needs to do is read the history of Muslim Spain and to know how knowledge was transmitted wholesale to Padua in Italy and elsewhere. Read Thomas Aquinas and what Al-Farabi said 325 yes before him. A catholic priest has even produced parallel texts from the two; Al-Khwarizmi and Copernicus; Ibn Sina and Descartes (some of this material is in my “Ishrate-e Awaagi” which is not likely to be published any time soon). Please do not think that I am a champion of contemporary Muslims. No, their achievements are behind them, their present is as ghastly as, most likely, their future would be. But these standard-bearers of humanity and culture (the West)—they leave a terrible bad taste in my mouth, which might not have been so if they didn’t make such open-mouthed pronouncements about their humanity and culture and their damned way of life. In fact my quarrel is with the whole world but more intense with the West, because they have done most damage.

I had no idea you had read Marquez. And now I am impatient to hear about your views. “Transvaluation of Values”, that is what good literature does. It cannot change the world but thru the world it creates, it can give us intimations of what the real world could have been like. It can change your perception of reality. Another such book is Marai’s “Esther’s inheritance.”

Regarding my translated version of Askari’s article that I sent you. Since you are better acquainted with literary vocabulary and certainly write better than I do, you might, as you read it, improve some of my glaring inadequacies by suggesting more apt words, phrases and expressions. French poetry and its forms are not my forte.

With love,



Sat, Jan 14, 2012, at 2:36 PM

Dear Umar Sahib,

Marquez’s book is one of those that shake you to the core. It is insufferably poignant. All the more so because it does not shout human pain, or name its manifestations, but suggests it tangentially, or whispers it stoically in passing, or overlays it with light-hearted banter. To me, it is a story of the rebirth of and redemption of a selfish man, from his crass sensuality to his spiritual awakening as a tragic aesthete. He changes from a self-deluding brothel-brute to a selfless worshipper at the altar of pure beauty, (a beauty given transcendental import by its being linked to the magnificent symbol of the cat).

Upon starting to read Izutsu, I readily preconized his bias which you identified as yours too. To a great extent, it is mine too. The post-colonial theory gives it a robust expression. Edward Said, Franz Fanon, and others have thoroughly debunked the hegemonic ideology of occidental superiority.

Yours affectionately,



Mon, May 14, 2012, 10:36

Dear Asif,

When I was in Karachi recently, I was interviewed by Anwer Sen Roy of BBC. In it, I brought you up too and said quite a few things about you.  I am sending you the link.

With love,



Wed, May 16, 2012, at 2:45 PM 

Dear Umar Sahib:

As soon as I hung up the phone, I realized that I had just crossed a barrier that had existed between us for months, namely, the sound barrier.

In your article on Manto that you sent me, you have yet again made a strong case for the autonomy and self-sufficiency of Art along with rejecting the vision of realistic fiction. However, playing the Devil’s advocate, one might add that you did so despite Manto himself, for did he not himself say “We ought to present life as it is, not as it was, nor as it will be, nor as it ought to be “ (quoted in Leslie Flemming).

I may not have appreciated your article as much as I did had I not read Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Letter to A Young Novelist”. In my eyes, Manto is not just one of the best fiction writers in Urdu rather,  he is the best, the Supreme one, just as Ghalib in Urdu poetry. My reverence for both borders on worship.

You probably heard the sad news: [Carlos] Fuentes died yesterday.




Wed, May 16, 2012, at 10:38 PM

My dear Asif,

You cannot teach an old dog new tricks–can you? Provided the writer is accomplished in his art, he may intend something specific by his writing, but he allows himself to be surprised by his characters who may play tricks on him. He does not quash the moment of blossoming. So his intention means little to me. As long as the reading can be derived logically from his writing, I can dispense with his intention. Llosa concludes his last letter to his young novelist thus: ”A successful fiction or poem will always contain a dimension that rational analysis isn’t quite able to encompass.” So what critics may say about Manto and Manto might say himself will always be the product of rational thought, of moments when one is farthest away from the wondrous and equally unpredictable act of creation. So where does the “old dog” fit in all this, that is, me who is now too old to change his ideas.

I am also glad that I spoke to you on the phone. I wanted to do that much earlier. I wasn’t sure whether you would have liked that. Perhaps we were both equally hesitant out of deference to the other.

For some strange reason, a couple of lines of Dard have come to my mind unbidden:

wa kar diye hain shauq ne band-e-qaba-e husn

ghair az nigah ab ko’i ha’il nahin raha




Sat, May 19, 2012, at 12:34 PM

Dear Umar Sahib:

Don’t forget that the quote was cited by the Devil’s advocate (who is such a teaser).

I knew you would counter the view he cited exactly in the manner that you did, that is, in the anti-intentionalist vein. You phrase your rejoinder eloquently.

I too have always staunchly defended autotelism of art against the reductionist efforts of all brands. As for the New Critic’s idea of the intentional fallacy, I reject it as a dogma since to me the relevance of authorial intention in a work of literature is an empirical and not a theoretical question (as is the author’s biography and socio-historical context).

I share your aversion to critic’s pretensions of being the indisputable authority in the realm of literature. But, the irony! Taken to its logical extreme, does not the idea of intentional fallacy (which involves ignoring the author’s pronouncements about his existential nexus with his work) puts him above the author and makes the critic the uncontested authority in the realm of literature?

Your quoted couplet poetically transported me to you.




Sat, May 19, 2012, at 8: 38 PM

Dear Asif,

I’m not averse to authorial intent if the critic has the decency not to take the matter of politics and society overboard. Iqbal has been crucified by these critics. They just talk about everything except his poetry. The same goes for Faiz. So, in order to introduce some sense of balance in this rampant gobbledygook of our so-called critics, I go to the other extreme: denial of authorial intent, doing my best to pull the rug from under the feet of the critic himself to impress upon him that his own craft has no validity.

That said, my problem hasn’t moved a centimeter towards any resolution. If all Manto ever wanted to do is to show society as it is, why must he write stories? Who needs him to show life as it is: we see it without him anyway. If he is lamenting the absence of morality, this then is not part of his vocation as a writer of fiction. I think when he says what he says, he is posturing—exactly as I am when I rush off to the other extreme. As I write these lines, I’m reminded of Manto’s story “Bu”. Leslie Flemming has a whole spiel on it, and we are not any the wiser for it. But I read it as a story of awakening of a rare and precious sense in Randhir, thanks to the woman from the hills, with all the captivating smells wafting from her unwashed body, repelling but strangely nourishing his senses. Why don’t our critics write about that? You need a real brain to engage with such issues. And what we have got is Zia Mohiyuddin with his reductionist clichés like “scathing indictment of Partition”.

I think the question of authorial intent has been submerged by the charge of obscenity frequently leveled against Manto. It was never allowed to be appreciated in harmony with other elements of his craft. And Manto was not the one to take it lying down. Fiction and poetics were never at issue: it was attack, bereft of any sense of literal sensibility, and counter attack, equally bereft of the same sensibility. Manto was hitting back. That’s all.




Tue, May 22, 2012 at 2:48 PM

Dear Umar Sahib:

I am an extremist. Perhaps that’s why, as if to compensate for the excesses of my nature, I consciously adopt the Greek middle. But perhaps beyond the merely psychological explanation, I have a philosophical reason too. I see reality as a paradox. Therefore for me, the middle does not signify any “resolution”. It is rather a taxing, distressing and painful sustaining of contradictions in reality and within yourself. That is to say, I silently stoically bear the tension between thesis and antithesis, without seeking a synthesis or a “resolution” because, I believe, there is none.

I recall Mario’s view that one writes to imaginatively plug the hole one experiences in one’s existence. In my view, that may be one of the possible reasons.  Another may be just that which you decry, that is, “to show society” (or reality) just “as it is.” Show it to those who either do not want to, or cannot see it as it is, but only as their false consciousness presents it to them through the distorting lenses of some creed ideology, or dogma, or grand myth.

The problem with us writers is that we tend to elevate our subjective understanding of why and how we write what we do to the level of objective truth. It is one thing to make the axiological statement: “In my view, this is why and how literature is written” and quite another to make an ontological assertion: “This is why and how literature is written”.

Your interpretation of Manto is worthy but would it not he be a greater writer if his writing afforded interpretation at multiple levels simultaneously?

I too am glad that upon hearing your voice the aura of abstraction that surrounded your name has suddenly vanished.



First published in The Beacon.

Asif Raza writes poetry in Urdu and translates many of them into English. His poems have been published in several literary journals in India and Pakistan. Several of his original poems as well as his English translations of them were published in the now defunct bilingual  journal,  Annual of Urdu Studies, University of Wisconsin. He has authored three collections of poems:  Bujhe Rangon ki Raunaq (Splendor of Faded colors), Tanhai ke Tehwar(Festivals of Solitude) and Aaeene Ke Zindani (Captives of the Mirror) published in two editions, the first one in Delhi, India (under the supervision of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, who also wrote its foreword) and the other in Karachi, Pakistan. After a doctorate in Sociology, he taught at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb and a senior college in Texas. He lives in Tyler, Texas.

Muhammad Umar Memon was Emeritus Professor of Urdu, Persian and Islamic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Critic. Short story writer, he was editor of The Annual of Urdu Studies,He translated widely from English and Arabic into Urdu and from Urdu into English. His translations of Urdu writing have introduced eminent Urdu writers such as Intizar Husain’s Basti, Naiyar Masud’s Essence of Camphor and a score of other Urdu writers from south Asia, among them, Varis Alavi to the English-speaking world. He translated with critical introductions among others: An Epic Unwritten. The Penguin Book of Partition Stories, Penguin India 1998; Do You Suppose it’s The East Wind? Penguin India 2009;  My Name is Radha The Essential Manto, Penguin Random House India, 2015.