Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 6, 1987 p. 1.


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Ralph Russell

HOW NOT TO WRITE THE HISTORY OF URDU LITERATURE

When I was in Pakistan in 1965 I was told of the publication of a new, full-scale history of Urdu literature, written in English by Muhammad Sadiq and published by Oxford University Press.1 I looked forward with some excitement to reading it. As a student in 1946-49 I had encountered Ram Babu Saksena's A History of Urdu Literature2 published in 1927, and T. Grahame Bailey's A History of Urdu Literature,2 published in 1932—at that time the only histories available in English. I read both with mounting amazement and indignation—amazement because it passed my understanding how people who had such a very poor opinion of Urdu literature could want to write a history of it, and indignation because a student who as yet could not read Urdu with facility would obviously turn to these books in the first instance and find, as I did, that anything more likely to discourage the study of Urdu literature would be difficult to imagine. I hoped, therefore, that this new book would be very different; and the fact that it had been published by Oxford University Press, who had presumably had the manuscript read by someone competent before agreeing to publish it, seemed to indicate that my hopes were not unreasonable.

When I saw the book and read it my hopes turned to disappointment and anger I began to ask myself, more strenuously than before, Why do these people write like this7 Why can't they see all the things that are so glaringly wrong with what they write9 And I promised myself that I would one day write an article on how nor to write the history of Urdu literature, or at any rate how not to write it for English-speaking readers.

Let us first see how Saksena sets the tone to which I take so strong exception. He introduces his reader to Urdu poetry in a chapter (chapter 3) entitled "General Characteristics of Urdu Poetry." In its nine pages we are told that "old Urdu poetry [was] an imitation of Persian poetry" and that

its range is very limited for it sank into the ruts of old battered Persian themes and adorned itself with the rags of the cast off imagery of Persian poetry having absolutely no relation to India, the country of its birth

"This greedy absorption and servile imitation invests Urdu poetry with a

1 Muhammad Sadiq A History of Urdu Literature (Delhi Oxford University Press, 1964), 2nd edition, 1984

2 Ram Babu Saksena A History of Urdu Literature (Allahabad Ram Narain Lal, 1927)

3 T Grahame Bailey A History of Urdu Literature (Calcutta YMCA Press, 1932)


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