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Teen Navilet: French in Urdu, or Urdu in French?

Teen Navilet: French in Urdu, or Urdu in French?

It happens very seldom in the literary history of a language that a non-native speaker produces creative writing that bears the hallmark of a literary style that is honed over years of studying and absorbing classical literature in that language. Such is the case with Julien Columeau’s prose. Before I go further in sharing my views on Columeau’s work, I want to thank another promising fiction writer, Saima Iram, for introducing me to Columeau.

Bilingualism, especially its function in creative writing, has fascinated me for the past several years. The more culturally distant the languages of the speaker/writer, the more complex are the ways in which language is manifested. In Columeau’s case, French and its Provencal dialect are his native languages, and Urdu and Punjabi the languages that he speaks with native fluency. The cultural gulf between French and Urdu does not split the writer’s imagination, but enriches it in ways that make his work outstanding. When thinking of the connection between language and thought I am always reminded of Ghalib, who constantly searched for words to grab his ideas, and joined Persian with Urdu in an effort to reach imaginative heights in poetry.

Columeau’s vocabulary is a mélange of classical and spoken language, of active and passive vocabulary, that is woven together seamlessly to create a narrative flow that is spellbinding. So how is a Frenchman able to create this prose style? I had heard that he dictated his stories. This was more complicated because the rhythm of words differs when language is written, compared to dictated. In dictation, one abdicates a number of features that are a part of written text. Dictation is like oration, the mind uses synonyms to create an effect for reinforcement. Columeau’s language did not seem like dictated text to me, so I asked him directly how he was able to write in such high literary register. His answer did not surprise me. He wrote in ‘roman’ script, then got it transcribed and worked on it meticulously, measuring, weighing, reviewing every word until he felt it was right.

Teen Navilet (Three Novelettes), as the name suggests, is a collection of three long fictional pieces: ‘Saghar’, ‘Miraji ke Liye’ and ‘Munir Jafri Shaheed’. The first two are biographical fictions, the third is a compelling narrative, realistic if somewhat overdrawn, of a poet who is also a zakir, taking over the ancestral calling after a wayward life. I read the Miraji story first because Miraji is among my favourite poets and I find his poetry both unsettling and rewarding. In Columeau’s story I found the use of the second person pronoun ‘you’ an unusual but effective narratorial choice. It is an introspective stream of consciousness, a biographical style that allows the writer to become the person he is writing about. We have Miraji looking, viewing, and talking to himself. The identification is seamless. We are drawn into the most intimate moments of the poet’s life; a poet who wants to experience the highest and the lowest forms of being. The narrative though sympathetic is relentless to the point of becoming tiresome.

‘Munir Jafri Shaheed’ is steeped in an ambience that shows Columeau’s intimate knowledge of the practice of Shiaism in the Punjab. I asked him how he acquired this exhaustive knowledge, and he told me that he regularly attended majalis and read deeply on Islamic history. The story’s success is only partly due to the extensive research Columeau undertook before writing it. The writer’s creative imagination fills in the colours with an unerring, hair-raising realism. For example the scene of the protagonist’s father’s burial:

“Main talqin ke liye qabr mein utra. Upar dharti ke pushte par ek resh dar admi dua parh raha tha. Niche zamin tale main apne bazuon ke teeshon ko jor kar abbu ke kafnaye hue kandhon ko utha raha tha. Abbu ki maiyyat hunut shudah lag rahi thi. Maiyyat ka ang ang akra hua tha, maiyyat mein ek sanp ki sukhi thand thi.”

Columeau’s approach is at once conventional and unconventional. The passage I have quoted above describes the burial in a language that is classical but speckled with mixed metaphor, for example: maiyyat ka ang ang akra hua tha. Maiyyat mein ek sanp ki sukhi thand thi (The limbs of the corpse were frozen stiff. The corpse had the dry chill of a snake).

‘Munir Jafri Shaheed’s’ narrative has many layers. It is about the spell that a zakir can cast on his audience through the power of words. It is about the struggle of Shias in a hostile environment, and its politics. It is about the dark side of religious practice; the hollowness, shallowness, emptiness beneath the clerical vestments. The protagonist, a zakir, is a foolish-tragic figure consumed by passions. He is a passionate orator whose theatrical, fiery oratory is stoked by alcohol and drugs. He lusts for women’s bodies, spending money earned from religious discourse on prostitutes and showgirls. He is a tragic figure because he is lonely. In spite of commanding the emotions of thousands of religious devotees, he is alone. His motherless childhood is spent with a father with whom he has no interaction. He is alienated yet when the news of his father’s assassination reaches him he is consumed by grief. The loneliness and grief moulds him. He steps into his father’s shoes.

There is something puzzling about Columeau’s deployment of Urdu. He uses a chaste, baroque form that stands out because it is different. It is different because he does not think like the average Urdu fiction writer. As he once said in an interview, he knows several languages but Urdu is the medium of his stories because the cultural milieu of his stories is the Urdu speaking world. His characters speak Urdu. But there isn’t much dialogue. The narrative mode is usually a flow of thought, but the language is freed of the cultural restraints of the Urdu milieu. In other words, it seems that Columeau writes like he would in French except he substitutes it with Urdu.

At different times in his career he has offered varying versions of his engagement with Urdu. He does not write Urdu because he doesn’t want to write like an Urdu writer. He speaks and reads Urdu but he writes Urdu in the ‘roman’ script. He dictates his stories and gets them transcribed. He writes first in French then reworks the text into Urdu. This leads me to the complicated connections between languages in the mind of a person who is fluent in several. Speaking for myself, I am often confounded when I am searching for an appropriate word in English and all that comes to mind is something in Urdu. Even more complex is the equation between scripting and speaking. It is not easy to write at a consistently high level in two or three languages. One has to think in the language to write well in it. One has a relationship with the script one uses. Writing Urdu in ‘roman’ is not the same as writing Urdu in nasta’liq rasm-i khat. The script imposes a discipline, even a cultural stricture, and a way of thinking. Languages have intrinsic natural musicality that encourages the practitioners to describe them as sweet, earthy, sharp or gross. Columeau seems to have transcended the necessity of script.

Creative writing is open to many possibilities of playing with language. Multilingualism allows writers to stretch the boundaries of language and rhetoric to great lengths. In the process they crossover and hybridise thought progressions in novel ways. Columeau’s fiction has enriched Urdu’s repertoire by bringing in new ways of engaging with the cultural rhetoric of the language.

Mehr Afshan Farooqi is Associate Professor in the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Virginia. She is currently writing a commentary on the mustarad kalam of Ghalib

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