Faculty Highlight: C.M. Naim

Q: Congratulations on your new book Urdu Crime Fiction, 1890—1950: An Informal History. Can you provide a brief summary of the work?

It is a chatty, ‘informal’ account of Urdu mysteries and thrillers written or published between 1890 and 1950. Crime fiction originated in Europe and North America in the nineteenth century; my book shows how Urdu writers responded to this new stimulus, first with translations, then very soon with adaptations and original works of what eventually became known as jasusi adab (Detective Literature). These books were advertised as ‘wonder-inducing’ and ‘sleep-depriving,’ and bore titles such as Khuni Chhatri (The Bloodthirsty Umbrella), Tilismi Burj (The Magic Turret), and Chand aur Suraj ki Chori (The Theft of Moon and Sun). Many sold in the thousands, but mostly they tended to have a short life of two or three years.

I was interested in telling the story of what had been almost totally lost and badly neglected. Hence the chronological limits—1890 for the beginnings, and 1950 for the closure. What happened after 1950 is well-enough known and accessible, even in English. But for the period that my narrative covers, I could find only two short Urdu articles—one claimed there was no crime fiction in Urdu, the other allowed that there was some but it was mostly negligible.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in the subject of Urdu Crime Fiction?

I’ve been an avid reader of crime fiction since my school days. Both Urdu and English. For some reason, spy tales and science fiction never interested me much. This book is a labor of love, and aspires to please all lovers of crime fiction, or at least those in South Asia, regardless of their language. To my knowledge, this is first book in English devoted to crime fiction in any South Asian language.

Q: How did you go about doing this research and collecting data? What was the most intriguing or unexpected part of the process? 

The work out of which this book finally appeared began in 2008, but the idea of the book came much later. My original project was simply to learn more about old—and now mostly extinct—public libraries. It brought me back in touch with the ‘junk’ I once used to read and hugely enjoy. Reading old books with new eyes eventually created an urge to share the experience with others. There were also some surprises that deserved to be shared.

Fans of the French daredevil Arsène Lupin—hero of a recent Netflix series—should be surprised to learn that a century ago, Maurice Leblanc’s boulevardier-thief was similarly adored by Urdu readers in a desī avatār, Bahram, ‘transcreated’ by Zafar Omar in Nili Chhatri (The Blue Umbrella). In fact, Bahram took on a life of his own, independent of Lupin, in both Urdu and Indi popular literature. On the other hand, Urdu readers of the time decidedly showed little interest in Sherlock Holmes, Translations of his adventures didn’t sell. Urdu readers, I found, preferred thrillers over tales of ratiocination.

Another surprise was to find how big a role GWM Reynolds, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, had played in the development of prose fiction in Urdu, including crime fiction. Admiration for his magnum opus, The Mysteries of London, led some writers produce mini-imitations in Urdu carrying such titles as Mistriz af Delhi and Mistriz of Rawalpindi.

Then there was the thrill of coming upon the only existing picture of Munshi Tirath Ram Ferozepuri, while tracing down his allegedly 200 translations of English popular fiction. I found some 114 titles, approximately 60,000 pages of translated fiction. But there is more to find, I’m sure.

Q: What challenges, if any, did you face when writing the book?

There were some. Getting easy and full access to books in some libraries was nearly impossible. You need to know people. Luckily, at most places, I could find someone to help me. Old Urdu bookstores have disappeared in India. Also, old public libraries in most cities. Academic libraries were of no help when it came to popular fiction of the past. A big problem occurred last year when I had a stroke and couldn’t be sure if I would be able to work with the editor. Fortunately, I was.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or events to follow this book?

A publisher in India has agreed to bring out a selection of my published academic articles in English, and I hope to add a couple of new, unpublished ones.  Also, a short book about the poet, Hasrat Mohani, and his first imprisonment (1908) under the colonial rule—for refusing to disclose the identity of the author of an article that he published in his weekly and was labelled ‘seditious’ but the colonial government.

Q: I see that you have also published recently two books in Urdu, can you tell me a bit about those? 

Thanks for your interest. One is a selection of research papers, some translated from the English, others are originals in Urdu. It’s titled Muntakhab Mazamin (Select Articles) and is published from both Karachi and Delhi.

The second book, Tahzib-e Niswan: Ek Jaridah, Ek Tahrik (Tahzib-e Niswan: A Journal and a Movement) is very dear to me. In two volumes, running close a thousand pages, it is an anthology of prose and verse selections from the first 30 years (1898 to 1930) of Tahzib-e Niswan, a weekly ‘for girls’ published from Lahore and the first journal in Urdu to be edited by a woman. The journal was truly revolutionary, for it not only provided Urdu-speaking women, at least of the upper and middle classes, a major platform to express their concerns and views in their own way but also created among them a vital sense of camaraderie that was unique at the time. I hope my book will show today’s scholars how rich and diverse its contents really were, and how invaluable they are now. For example, only from reading some of the old issues I learned that the journal was much opposed by Muhammad Iqbal, the famous poet, and his close friend, Shaikh Abdulqadir.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in similar research? 

I guess one advice might be useful. Urdu books mostly don’t indicate publication dates. Why? I don’t know. But I always read the ads in the back of the book if there are any. In the case of the crime fiction book, these ads were most helpful. Other titles by the author. A rough chronological order of his/her books. Names of the author’s peers and their publications. These are the most important things the ads provided. There was much more. Every page of any old popular fiction book should be looked at.