Faculty Highlight: C.M. Naim

Shende: Congratulations on your new book A Most Noble Life: The Biography of Ashrafunnisa Begum (1840-1903). Could you briefly tell us what and who the book is about?

Naim: The book consists of two major sections. One is a translation of the biography of Ashrafunnisa Begum (1840–1903), a young widow who spent most of her life teaching little girls at the Victoria Girls School at Lahore. The other is a long essay on her biographer, Muhammadi Begum (1877–1908), who, in her brief life, made a name for herself as a prolific writer of fiction, verse, and instructional texts for women. She was also the first woman to edit a journal in Urdu.

Shende: What drew you to Hayat-e Ashraf (1904) and why did you decide to translate this work from Urdu to English?

Naim: It was purely by chance. A friend sent me a reprint of the book many years back, and it immediately captivated me by its sincerity and poignancy. Most critical for me was an autobiographical essay included in it, in which Ashrafunnisa Begum described how she was denied access to simple literacy and how she then found a way to learn to read and write Urdu on her own. I translated that essay and, together with a discussion of a few other issues relevant to her life experience, published it in my journal, Annual of Urdu Studies, in 1987. The article was much noticed and reprinted; it was also included in some syllabi, both here [in the United States] and in India. It encouraged me to translate the book, and that in turn led me to discovering the life and works of the other extraordinary woman, the book’s author, Muhammadi Begum.

I then had to write at some length about the latter’s life and work. In the brief period of just ten years, Muhammadi Begum wrote five pieces of prose fiction for adult women, five books for children, three books of verse for adult women and the same number for children, and five instructional books for young women. These were not massive books, but each was widely read and praised and went through several printings. Most significantly, she and her husband, Syed Mumtaz Ali, launched in 1898, a few months after their marriage, an Urdu weekly, Tahzīb-e Niswāñ, which she edited. The weekly was nurtured by the family after her death and lasted nearly five decades. Incidentally, the publication encouraged Ashraffunnisa Begum to take up writing herself; she published quite a few poems and essays in it in the final years of her life. My book includes three of her essays. You can get a sense of her concerns from their titles: “Anger,” “The Evils of Pampering,” and “On Adopting a Child.”

Shende: Ashrafunnisa Begum devoted her life to teaching girls in the latter half of the nineteenth century. When dealing with a historical subject like this, is it important for the author to immerse him/herself in that historical period? If yes, how did you go about it?

Naim: Any text has to be read in its context, otherwise much of it would be misunderstood or not understood at all. I have read and written about much of the Muslim reform literature of the 19th century and was most lucky to access a large number of the old issues of Muhammadi Begum’s weekly made available by the British Library.

Shende: Why did you choose to highlight the social issues of women’s literacy and widow remarriage in the ‘Afterword’ section of A Most Noble Life?

Naim: We should bear in mind that literacy was not that common in the general population, male or female, in the 19th century as it is now. Though a change took place by the end of the century, it mainly benefitted the male members of the population. Class differences also played a huge role in that regard. As did the purdah rules. Even among the Muslim elite, little girls were at home and only the rudiments of a few things such as the vocalization of a few portions of the Qur’an necessary for the performance of the obligatory prayers and the ability to read, if not fully understand, some religious texts in Urdu prose and verse, the latter being essential for pious Shi’ah ladies such as the protagonist of the biography.

Ashraffunisa Begum was very young when she lost her mother. Her father also left the family home in rural Bijnor to work in Gwalior. As a result, her life as a child was governed by her grandfather and an uncle. The grandfather had hired a live-in teacher, a young Muslim widow, for the instruction of the young females of the family. But when the young widow remarried, he refused to let her come back and put an end to the education of the girls. Thus, these two issues—female literacy and widow-remarriage—came to be of utmost significance in the life of Ashraffunisa Begum. She did her utmost to enhance the first and was in no position to do anything about the second.

Muslim men, bachelor or widower, have never had to face any restriction concerning matrimony. But Muslim women in South Asia have long been totally at the mercy of their male elders in that regard. In principle, Muslim widows can remarry, and even initiate a matrimonial tie, but that has not been the practice in South Asia, where dominant Muslim males have insisted on disallowing to their females, in the name of a concept of ‘Honor,’ much that their religion, in fact, allows, including movement outside the home, literacy and education, divorce and remarriage. I chose to highlight the two issues that were critically significant in Ashraffunisa’s life.

Shende: What are some of the unique challenges of translating a biography from Urdu to English about a person from the nineteenth century?

Naim: I was translating a 20th-century text. That it was about a 19th-century person caused no particular problem.

Shende: Are there any other projects you are currently working on, or plan to begin to work on?

Naim: I had been working on a cherished project for some years and am grateful that I managed to complete it last fall. It is a study of crime fiction in Urdu but restricted to its first sixty years, 1890 to 1950. It is an ‘informal history’ and quite old-fashioned. The audience I aim for is the general Indian reader who enjoys mysteries and thrillers. It is now out seeking a publisher. The tentative, but predictable title is Urdu Crime Fiction, 1890–1950: An Informal History.

Shreyas Shende is a Program Assistant at the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and a masters student at the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations.

C.M. Naim is a Professor Emeritus of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.