The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Rakhshanda Jalil

R jalilLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

Let me tweak Descartes and say, ‘I write; therefore I am.’ I think by now it is almost a compulsion; it defines who I am.

 Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I always have more than one in various stages. So, there is a biography of the Urdu poet Shahryar which is almost two-thirds done; a translation of a novel by Krishan Chandar called Ghaddar which my publishers are hoping to pitch as a partition novel next year (2017 marks the 70th year of the annus horribilis that was 1947); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat Chughtai which is nearly done; and a translated volume of short stories and poems by Gulzar on the partition, again due in 2017 to mark the 70th anniversary. And lurking somewhere in the future is a travelogue – on Ghalib’s journey from Delhi to Calcutta and back in the early 19th century.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

KLF LogoI worked for years as an editor in various publishing houses. I have also written journalistic pieces for various newspapers. My training for the Ph D taught me diligence and painstaking research. And then I have also been a translator for decades now. So all of these ‘roles’ have defined my writing style. As an editor, I produce a clean copy and have learnt over the years to do a self edit of everything I write. As a translator, I trained myself to do a close reading of texts and also learnt to value words and tease out their exact meanings. As a columnist, I learnt to write quickly and meet deadlines and be considered a reliable and swift writer. As a researcher, I learnt there are no short cuts to producing good writing. So everything comes together in a happy mix!

Who are your favorite authors?

Jane Austen, Vikram Seth, Manto, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust in prose and Ghalib, Faiz, Iqbal, Mir, Sahir in poetry.

 What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Translating poetry, especially from Urdu to English because the rhythms, sound patterns, pauses are so very different in the two languages. I am all too conscious that what sounds sublime in Urdu often sounds trite and banal in translation.

What’s your idea of bliss?

Sleeping soundly.

 What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Rudeness, bad behavior, and lack of apology for it.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

The Quran, Remembrance of Things Past, Pride and Prejudice, Collected Works of Mirza Ghalib, Faiz and Iqbal, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My family.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Allow me to a sher (verse) by Iqbal instead of a sentence:

Achcha hai dil ke saath rahe paasban-e- aql

Lekin kabhi kabhi isse tanha bhi chhod de

It is good that the heart be accompanied by the guide to reason

But every once in a while it must be left on its own too


 Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has edited four collections of short stories: Urdu Stories (Srishti, 2002), a selection by Pakistani women writers called Neither Night Nor Day (Harper Collins, 2007), New Urdu Writings: From India and Pakistan (Westland, 2013), and Pigeons of the Dome: Stories of Communalism (Niyogi Books, 2015); a collection of essays on the little known monuments of Delhi, called Invisible City (Niyogi, 2008, revised third edition 2011); two co-authored books, Partners in Freedom: Jamia Millia Islamia (Niyogi, 2006) and Journey to a Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Diary (OUP, 2009). She was co-editor of Third Frame, a journal devoted to literature, culture and society brought out by the Cambridge University Press. She has edited and introduced a volume of essays entitled Qurratulain Hyder and the River of Fire: The Meaning, Scope and Significance of her Legacy (Aakar, 2010; and Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2010).

She has published ten works of translations: Premchand’s short stories entitled The Temple and the Mosque (Harper Collins, 1992; revised and enlarged 2011); a collection of satirical writing in Hindi by Asghar Wajahat entitled Lies: Half Told (Srishti, 2002); 32 satirical cameos by Saadat Hasan Manto entitled Black Borders (Rupa & Co., 2003); Through the Closed Doorway, nazms by Urdu poet Shahryar (Rupa & Co. 2004); short stories by Intizar Husain entitled Circle and Other Stories (Rupa & Co. 2004; Sang-e-Meel, Lahore, 2012); a collection of Premchand’s short stories for children called A Winter’s Tale and Other Stories (Puffin, 2007); Naked Voices and other Stories – a collection of stories and sketches by Saadat Hasan Manto translated by her from Urdu (Roli, 2008); and Panchlight and Other Stories by Hindi writer Phanishwarnath Renu (Orient Blackswan, 2010). Her translations of 15 short stories by Intizar Husain The Death of Sheherzad (Harper Collins, 2014) was shortlisted for the Crossword Award; and her translation of Intizar Husain’s seminal novel Aage Samandar Hai, The Sea Lies Ahead, for Harper Collins won the German Embassy-Karachi Litfest Pakistan Peace Prize earlier this year.

She runs an organization called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularization of Hindi-Urdu literature.

Her Ph. D. on the ‘Progressive Writers’ Movement as Reflected in Urdu Literature’ was published by Oxford University Press as Liking Progress, Loving Change. Another book, a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, has been published by Women Unlimited as A Rebel and Her Cause (2014, and also published by Oxford University Press, Karachi). With over 15 books behind her and over 50 academic papers at seminars and conferences, at present she contributes regularly to national and international newspapers and magazines, writing book reviews, opinion pieces and travelogues. She also contributes regularly to Himal (Kathmandu), The Herald (Karachi) and The Friday Times (Lahore), apart from the Indian Express, The Hindu, Biblio, The Literary Review, etc. in India.

Her debut collection of fiction, Release & Other Stories, was published by Harper Collins (India, 2011), and received critical acclaim.