Scholar, poet, teacher, and diplomat Ahmed Ali (1908-1998) holds an honored place as novelist and chronicler of India's shift from an English colony to a free state. In addition to being a prolific author of poems and world-class novels, translator of the Koran and the ghazals of Ghalib, and critic of poet T. S. Eliot, Ali lived a double life in business and politics. He worked as a public relations director and was a foreign spokesman for Pakistan. While serving in the diplomatic corps, he traveled the world.
The son of Ahmad Kaniz Begum and Syed Shujauddin, a civil servant, Ali was born in Delhi, India, on July 1, 1908. He grew up during the emergence of Indian nationalism and the Muslim League, the impetus behind the creation of a separate state of Pakistan. After his father's death, he passed into the care of conservative relatives who lived under a medieval set of standards. According to their orthodox views, Ali could not read poetry or fiction in Urdu, even the classic fable collection The Arabian Nights, which they denounced as immoral.
Escape Through Reading
To flee intellectual isolation, Ali read a volume of children's fables—Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1863)—and began writing his own fiction around the age of eleven. For material, he adapted adventure stories and tales he heard from his aunts and from storytellers. In his teens, he expanded his reading experience to European novelists James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Marcel Proust and the verse of revolutionary English poet T. S. Eliot.
An Intellectual in the Making
During Ali's youth, the era was gloomy with upheaval as India struggled to free itself from British colonialism. At this momentous time in the nation's transformation, from 1925 to 1927, he attended Aligarh Muslim University in southeast Delhi. After transferring to Lucknow University, where he completed a B.A. and M.A. with honors, he thrived in an academic community and enjoyed the atmosphere of the King's Garden and the River Gomti. He was influenced by socialist and communist doctrines and gained the camaraderie of British and Indian professors, who admired his candor.
Ali channeled his idealism into political activism. The rise of the freedom movement that followed the Simon Commission Report on Indian Reforms stressed the nation's need for total change. He recognized that Indians lived a shallow existence that perpetuated failed ideals adopted from their British overlords. He realized that the people's reliance on religion and fatalism worsened slavery, hunger, and other remnants of imperialism.
After graduating in 1931, Ali earned his living by lecturing in English at Lucknow, Allahabad, and Agra universities. Choosing Urdu, the language of the Progressive Writers' Movement, he simultaneously began writing short fiction. He collaborated with three friends to publish a first pro-revolution anthology, Angaray (Burning Coals), which earned the scorn of conservatives and Islamic fanatics. In addition to ridiculing the authors, his critics threatened them with death by stoning. Three months later, agitators caused the British government to ban the book. In response to censorship, Ali maintained hope for the future through literature. To advance Indian reform, he helped to found the Progressive Writers' League and dedicated himself to a literary life.
Finding a Voice
For the next twelve years, Ali wrote short stories, some of which reached English and American readers in translation. His experiments with symbolism, realism, and introspection helped to direct the modern Urdu short story. He followed the joint fiction collection with his own anthology, Sholay (Flames) (1932) and two plays, Break the Chains (1932) and the one-act The Land of Twilight (1937). In 1936, he co-founded the All-India Progressive Writers Association, the preface to a new era in Urdu literature. The league's internal squabbles over progressivism caused a break with orthodox members. Opposed to stodgy conservative proponents of the working class, he chose a more inclusive, humanistic world view.
To reach more readers, Ali abandoned Urdu in favor of English. In 1939, he produced his masterwork, Twilight in Delhi, the saga of an upper-class Muslim merchant and his family during and after the 1857 mutiny, India's first war of independence. In an act of personal and ethnic introspection, Ali locked himself in his apartment and composed fiction that exposed his homeland's social problems. He believed that India was trapped in an inescapable low, an historic ebb that was part of a universal cycle of rise and fall, birth and decay. He stressed the powerlessness of human actors caught up in events orchestrated by invisible forces.
At the beginning of World War II, Ali carried his novel manuscript to London and sold it to Hogarth Press. After editorial clashes over themes the staff considered subversive, the company issued his book in 1940. It found immediate favor with critics Bonamy Dobree, E. M. Forster, and Edwin Muir. When a later edition reached American audiences in 1994, Publishers Weekly called it a fascinating history and cultural record of India.
A Taste of Success
When Ali returned home, he had become a legend. His novel was a popular favorite that All-India Radio broadcast to listeners. Still much in demand, it has become a classic of world literature. He turned to scholarly writing and published Mr. Eliot's Penny World of Dreams: An Essay in the Interpretation of T. S. Eliot's Poetry (1941).
During World War II, Ali worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Delhi as representative and listener research director. He continued writing short stories and issued three Urdu collections: Hamari Gali (1944), Maut se Pahle (1945), and Qaid Khana (1945). In the late 1940s, he headed the English department at Presidency College in Calcutta and was visiting professor for the British Council in Nanking at the National Central University of China. The next year, he resided in Karachi and directed foreign publicity for the government of Pakistan.
Restored Initial Aims
Ali discovered that his academic and civic work was not conducive to the demands of writing. Retreating to the solitude of the Kulu Valley in the Himalayas, he followed his first novel with Ocean of Night, a sequel set between the world wars and depicting the 1947 split of the Indian state into India and Pakistan. Sensitive to the hardships that reform placed on individual citizens, the text focused on India's loss of traditions and the new and uncharted direction that his fellow Indians faced.
During a reflective period, Ali worked for twelve years as counselor and deputy ambassador in the diplomatic service and resided in China, England, Morocco, and the United States. In traveling over four continents, he encountered new mindsets and attitudes. He composed Muslim China (1949) for the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs and translated The Flaming Earth: An Anthology of Indonesian Poetry (1949) and The Falcon and the Hunted Bird (1950). These translations introduced the English-speaking world to classic Urdu verse.
Family life also competed for Ali's attention. In 1950, he married Bilqees Jehan Rant, mother of their sons Eram, Orooj, and Deed and a daughter, Shehana. In 1960, he began supporting his family by directing public relations for business and industry. On the side, he collected verse for Purple Gold Mountain: Poems from China (1960) and translated and edited The Bulbul and the Rose: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (1960). In 1964, he returned to his second novel and published it.
When Ali again scheduled time for intensive writing, he edited Under the Green Canopy: Selections from Contemporary Creative Writings from Pakistan (1966). He also produced bilingual Italian-Urdu short fiction entitled Prima della Morte (1966) and composed The Failure of an Intellect (1968) and Problems of Style and Technique in Ghalib (1969). In addition, he translated Ghalib: Selected Poems (1969), the ghazals of early 19th-century poet Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib of Agra. As India's socio-political obsessions shifted from secular to religious, Ali found an absorbing set of problems to ponder. These challenges formed the plot of a third novel, Rats and Diplomats, a fictional canvas stripped of old themes and motifs. He completed it in 1969, but withheld it from publication until 1985.
Balanced Work and Art
In this second waiting period, Ali worked as deputy director for the United Kingdom Immigrants Advisory Service and chairman of Lomen Fabrics, Ltd., until 1978. He also translated The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (1973) and published a critical volume, The Shadow and the Substance: Principles of Reality, Art and Literature (1977). Retired from business, he lectured at Michigan State and Karachi University and served Western Kentucky and Southern Illinois universities as Fulbright visiting professor.
Still driven to write fiction that illuminated India's growth pangs, Ali pursued his career for internal reasons rather than for royalties. Working twelve-hour days at his home in Karachi, he created stories that expressed his joy in national advances and that taught the new generation about the forces that brought India into the modern age. In 1980, he received Pakistan's Sitara-e-Imtiaz (Star of Distinction), his most treasured award.
In his 70s, Ali issued a contemporary bilingual edition of the Koran, which critic Edwin Muir applauded for its pictorial elegance, rhythm, and spiritual power. He continued to produce short stories and verse and published The Prison-House (1985) and Selected Poems (1988). His collection of antiques, Gandhara art, and Chinese porcelain allowed him moments of relaxation. The University of Karachi presented him an honorary degree in 1993. Ali died on March 19, 1998, in Stockport, England.
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