Professor Ahmed Ali (1910-94) Men of letters
   

 

  Date of Issue (January 14, 2005)    

 

 

PROFESSOR AHMED ALI was born in Delhi in 1910, and educated at Aligarh and Lucknow universities, standing first-class and first in the order of merit in both B.A. (Honours), 1930 and M.A. English, 1931.

Professor Ahmed Ali taught at leading Indian universities including Lucknow and Allabbad from 1932-46 and joined the Bengal Senior Educational Service as Professor and Head of the English Department at Presidency College, Calcutta (1944-47). Professor Ahmed Ali was also BBC's Representative and Director in India during 1942-44. He went to China in 1947 as British Council Visiting Professor of English at the National Central University at Nanking. There, he learnt Chinese and translated from Chinese poets, and gathered material for his book Muslim China; his house became a gathering of friends and China his second home. A year later India was divided and he came from China to Karachi in 1948; becoming Director of Foreign Publicity, Government of Pakistan. He joined the Pakistan Foreign Service at the insistence of Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan, and the first file he received was marked "China" but was blank. He successfully established diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China in record time and the Pakistani embassy in Peking in 1950; and the Embassy in Morocco, in 1958. With Prime Minister Huseyn Shaheed Surahwardy he visited China again in 1956.

Professor Ahmed Ali started his literary career at a very young age and became co-founder of the All-India Progressive Writers' Movement and Association with the publication of Angare in 1932, a collection of short stories by four young friends, which was later banned by the British Government of India in March of 1933. Shortly afterwards Ahmed Ali and Mahmud-uz-Zaffar announced the formation of a "League of Progressive Authors", which was later to expand and become the All-India Progressive Writers' Association. Ahmed Ali presented his paper Art ka Taraqqi-Pasand Nazariya in its lnaugural Conference in 1936. A pioneer of the modem Urdu short story, Ahmed Ali's works include collections of short stories: Sholay (1934); Hamari Gali (1940); Qaid Khana (1942); and Maut Se Pahle (1945).


Ahmed Ali achieved international fame with his novel Twilight in Delhi, which was first published by The Hogarth Press in London in 1940. It was widely acclaimed by critics, and hailed in India as a major literary event, and took the English speaking world by storm. It has since acquired the position of a legend. The leading critic, Maurice Collis, in Time and Tide of London wrote: "It may well be that we may not understand India until it is explained to us by Indian novelists of the first ability as it was that we understood nothing of Russia before we read Tolstoy, Turgenev and the others. Ahmed Ali may well be the vanguard of such a literary movement." This judgement was reechoed by the Oxford History of India in 1958 when it said in reference to Ahmed Ali, Mulk Raj Anand and R.K. Narayan: "... it can be said that they have taken over from E.M. Forster and Edward Thompson the task of interpreting modern India to itself and the world." Twilight in Delhi has been translated into many languages including French, Spanish and Italian. Its exemplary Urdu translation, Dilli ke Sham (1963), by Professor Ahmed Ali stalented wife, Bilqees Jehan, in the opinion of some critics restored the natural language to the book, but those who read it in the translation said it could not have been written in English while those who had read it in the original English said it was untransiatable. This curious controversy was put to an end by the American critic, Dr. David D. Anderson, when he said: "the novel transcends language as any substantial work of art ultimately must do…".

Ahmed Ali's other works include two novels, Ocean of Night and Of Rats and Diplomats; The Prison-House; Purple Gold Mountain; Selected Poems; Mr. Eliot's Penny-world of Dreams; Muslim China; Ghalib: Selected Poems, The Problem of Style and Technique in Ghalib; and The Flaming Earth. Professor Ahmed Ali translated from Urdu, Persian, Indonesian, Chinese and Arabic. His translation of classical Urdu poetry, The Golden Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1973), makes an important contribution to the study of comparative literatures, and surveys in depth the literary and philosophical background of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.

AI-Qur'an, A Contemporary Translation (Princeton University Press, Oxford University Press & Akrash) is Professor Ahmed Ali's most outstanding contribution in the field of translation. Approved by eminent Islamic scholars, it has come to be recognised as the best of existing translations of the holy Qur'an. In the words of Dr. F. E. Peters of New York University: "Ahmed Ali's work is clear, direct, and elegant - a combination of stylistic virtues almost never found in translations of the Qur'an. His is the best I have read."

Professor Ahmed Ali was a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities at Michigan State University in 1975, Fulbright Visiting Professor of History at Western Kentucy University and Fulbright Visiting Professor of English at Southern Illinois University in 1978-79. He was made an Honorary Citizen by the State of Nebraska in 1979. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Karachi during 1977-79, which later conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature in 1993.

A distinguished gentleman of refined taste and manners, Professor Ahmed Ali had a deep interest in sufism and a passion for Ghalib. His writings voiced concern over the decay of Muslim culture and the injustices of colonial powers. Proficient in several languages including French, Chinese, Persian and Qur'anic Arabic, he captivated audiences by his eloquent speech and expression. Steeped in tradition but progressive at heart, he was equally at home in the East and the West. Professor Ahmed Ali had travelled widely, and was an avid collector of Chinese porcelain and paintings, Gandhara art and other antiques. He rubbed shoulders with kings and dignitaries and among his circle of friends were E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Virginia Wolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Han Su Yin, Tien Chen, Sarojini Naidu, Laxmi Pandit, Raja Rao, Jamni Roy, Kunwar Natwar Singh and the Surahwardy family; Mohsin Abdullah and Laurence Brander from Aligarh and Lucknow were his dear friends to the end.

Professor Ahmed Ali's career spanned the better part of the 20th century and he put us in touch with both our past and our present. His renderings of literatures of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East established links which were not yet known, and are remembered respectfully. His creative writings draw wide interest and are an enduring contribution to international letters. He was elected a Founding Fellow of the Pakistan Academy of Letters in 1979 and was awarded the Sitara-i-lmtiaz in 1980 in recognition of his contribution to letters and the nation.
Professor Ahmed Ali died in Karachi on 14th January 1994.

(Courtesy: Orooj Ahmed Ali and Shahana Ahmed Ali)

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