Reading is a strange business. Your mind starts making connections; one thing leads to the other. Introduced to Julian Barnes rather late, it was while reading The Noise of Time, a novel about the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, that I began thinking of this idea of fictionalising characters from real life. I was reminded of another author with a similar-sounding name who had done this, who I had not read yet.
I asked a friend to get me the books of Julien, the Frenchman writing in Urdu, with whom I was only familiar through his newspaper interviews.
I started reading Teen Novellete, his first publication that includes his debut novella Saghar, and two others Miraji Kay Liye and Muneer Jafri Shaheed. I read them one after the other, slowly, staying for ample time in each of the three poet’s unique, fascinating world. There was no way one could suspend the disbelief these were written by someone who’s learnt Urdu as a second or perhaps third language. The proficiency was thrilling. I was more captivated by the recreation of these sensual, bohemian, poetic lives in a manner that has not been attempted in this language before.
The stories were unforgettable, or at least I could not forget them. This was a world different from Barnes where the musical genius Shostakovich faces moral, existential choices in the face of a repressive power.
Both, however, fall in the category of ‘fictional biography’ which tickles the readers’ fancy — as to where biography ends and fiction begins. I didn’t realise I could actually meet Julien to ask him this question and many more, and so soon. I didn’t know he was back in Lahore, from Russia where he’s currently based, to finalise the publication of his third book, Chaurangi.
It was a cold January morning when we met at Readings, the bookshop. It was here that we had very briefly met before, about a year ago, shortly after Intizar Husain’s death. Asif Farrukhi was in Lahore for a literary festival; there was Zahid Dar and a few others too. A shy-looking Julien had then whispered in my ear something about being introduced to Zahid Dar through an interview of mine, in chaste Urdu, leaving me nervous for I had not read him at all.
This time at Readings and later at a coffee shop nearby, there was so much to talk about, particularly his own biographical journey which I thought was no less fiction-worthy, a novel waiting to be told. Dressed in a black jacket and checkered scarf, wanting to puff at least one cigarette before walking in with me, he brushed aside my query about fictionalising prominent men by saying: “But we do fictionalise ordinary [people’s] stories all the time and nobody objects to that.”
The conversation went on for almost three hours, followed by another one about two weeks later at the Nairang Gallery.
Julien Columeau left his home in Nancy, where his father was posted at that time, for Paris at age 20, telling the parents he wanted to learn Chinese but actually to learn Hindi. There, at INALCO (Institut National des Langues Orientales), the French equivalent of SOAS, he bunked classes in order to attend philosophy and College de France lectures. “I read Jacques Derrida a lot. I attended Derrida’s seminars for a year, which consisted of a weekly lecture.”
Alongside, he applied for a scholarship to learn Hindi at Kendriya Hindi Sansthan, Agra, “a great RSS place”, and got the scholarship. “At Agra, I felt I was being Hindu-ised. I spent a month there with great difficulty and went straight to Delhi which was only three hours away. I went to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The place was all vagabonding and gup shup but I would sit in the library and also try to learn Hindi because I had to return after one year. And then I developed interest in other languages. I learned Bengali and started learning Urdu on my own. There was a Hindi book through which you could learn Urdu; I would make words by joining alphabets.”
Soon it was time to go back to France. He went, got his visa renewed, came back and spent the next three to four years at JNU, because “my education was not yet complete. It was a great library where I used to sit and read books. I was also studying in France and would go sit in the exam every year. When I graduated, I was worried because my parents had said they won’t send me any more money. That’s when I landed this job of a translator in Kashmir. I was sent there in 1997 where I spent the next three years.”
He went back to France and did his MPhil in Islamic Studies, though the topic was ‘A structural analysis of an Urdu dastan, Fasana-e ajayb by Mirza Rajab Ali Beig Suroor’. It was in 2002, “long before dastan and dastangoi became fashionable”.
The following year, Julien was transferred to Islamabad where he was introduced to Aslam Azhar, Sarmad Sehbai and Harris Khalique. After spending six years in Islamabad, he came to Lahore where he met people like Intizar Husain, Zahid Dar and Ikramullah. By that time his first book Saghar had been published. “It was like my visiting card to these baba’as of Urdu. Intizar sahib read it, he read other things too. So I started sitting with these people and writing.”
In 2012, he was posted out of Pakistan. “Since then, I have returned many times, and continued publishing books. Saghar was published in 2009 followed by Teen Novellete and Zahid Aur Do Kahanian in 2013.”
Talking with Julien was an exercise in self-shame. I realised how we have forsaken our own language which is so lovingly adopted by this outsider who seems more of an insider. Struggling with my own vocabulary-resource for the right words, the next obvious question was: how did he turn to Urdu?
“It was a kind of rebellion. We were being saffronised in a big way in Agra; having to put a virtual tilak on our foreheads in the morning. We were deterred from meeting the Muslims who came to the mosque nearby. I couldn’t tolerate all this. So, when I ran away, the first thing I did was to start searching for Muslims. I came to Jamia Millia Islamia before going to JNU. It was an act of resistance against the government which was giving me money to learn Hindi. I thought I would learn Urdu and not Hindi. And if I had to learn a Sanskritised language, I would prefer Bengali which is a more beautiful language.”
Urdu in India, he thought, was too formal, nostalgic and cut off from the contemporary world and its problems. “It felt quite different in Pakistan. I read Enver Sajjad, Anis Nagi, Majeed Amjad, Noon Meem Rashid and others. I thought, yes there is modernity in Urdu.”
He was already writing in French, in a genre called ‘auto fiction’. In Pakistan, he came across a wealth of subjects; so he wrote the first two novellas Zalzala and Saghar in French. “But the entire diction came to me in the form of Urdu words. How could I translate Esaaiyon ki basti? When I started writing Saghar, I realised French was an estranged language; what will you call a mushaira, band, misra’a, majlis, tarhai mushaira, sadarat, intizamat, majmooa, and all the similes and metaphors that poets use?
“Then, I was writing about Pakistani subjects but not in the language of characters. A friend asked me: ‘Are you still writing in French?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘Derrida was right when he said that language has made us unreal’. I thought about what he had said. I had become unreal and my work too was unreal for those I was writing about. Then I started writing in Urdu. But my first story was in Punjabi.”
Read also: The four colours of fiction
I was interested in knowing if Julien had done something unique. We all have heard of British colonists attempting poetry in Urdu. What about fiction? “Yes, it has happened in the world but the traffic is more one-sided. People go from the East to the West (Mashriq se Maghrib). I would also refer to Nabokov, Conrad or Kundera who did not write in their own language. The only exception I have seen is of Jhumpa Lahiri who is writing only in Italian these days. Generally, people move towards the standard of the West; it can be an opposite of that too.” Well, he’s already proved that.
Many critics have told Julien that he left his own language and came to Urdu. He doesn’t buy that. “You can never leave your language. The language you write in becomes an extension of your own language.
“People also say I should quit writing about indecent subjects or political thoughts but I think now is the time to write about these things in Urdu. In a way you are pushing the limits.
“Once a Bengali man said to me he could not ever imagine writing in another language because he owns the language. I said I have never felt I own a language; I think the language owns me. The French language has claims on me whether I like it or not; these idioms from my mother and grandmother are stuck in my mind. In a way, you are imprisoned in that society and language.”
In Pakistan, many writers want to write in English. What has his experience been like? “The relationship of English with this environment is not clear to me. I can’t imagine the kind of people I write about as speaking in English.”
In his view, the people who write in English are either talking about the upper classes in their writings or are otherwise very good artistes which he isn’t. “The most successful among them, one who has transferred the mood of one language into English after much deliberation, is Mohammed Hanif. When you read Alice Bhatti, it feels as if you’re reading Punjabi.”
We met again in two weeks at Nairang Gallery, a place where he was very much at home. I really wanted to know his association with this land, having lived here for a long time and learnt a language and spoken it. “I have an association of an aarzi taur par mustaqil makeen (temporarily permanent resident). I wasn’t born here; I kind of adopted this place. Now I have been out for some time. In a way, I see mine as a fractured identity. I was born in a different land, I live in a different land, and then I am connected with the third land creatively. This is benefiting me. Now that my linguistic resources are limited, I am not able to write difficult language. I feel I have forgotten many words, constructions and idioms, so I use the simplest words.
“As long as my characters are from here, they will keep speaking this language. And I will keep writing in this language till I feel it is distant from me; also because the characters that I chose spoke a literary and difficult language. I was not writing about common people but poets. If anything, I loved the language of the poets. How you see poetry in their conversation, the selection of words, the use of an idiom, this thing fascinated me the most. Once I telephoned a poet, he was drunk and said “Arre Julien, qabron ko kyun dastak dete ho [hey Julien why do you knock at the graves]”. And it was fil badeeh (spontaneous). So it is this kind of language that I wanted to recreate. All three poets, Saghar, Miraji and Muneer Jafri use a language which is different from the usual and different from one another. You can see modernity in the verses in Miraji, the vocabulary of the 1950s, 60s in Saghar, or images of Karbala, Hussain etc. in Muneer Jafri.
Does a simplified language qualify as a good thing? “I think you will see the story line in a better way; earlier, it was hidden in words. Now that things are becoming minimal, thinner, simpler, I can see several things as happening, one of which is that I stop writing. As if you are heading towards ad’m (nothingness). One purpose of writing is to reach a point where you don’t feel the need to write. That is why I am so impressed by Zahid Dar who claims he stopped writing because he didn’t get the time to read but he was bold enough to have stopped when his career as a writer had just started, something which formed his identity.”
He refers again to Barnes’ Shostakovich novel. “To me The Noise of Time has failed as a novel because it doesn’t deal with his music. An earlier short story of Barnes ‘The Silence’, about Sibelius’s eighth symphony which he never finished, is much more powerful. Sibelius is constantly thinking about this symphony, trying to correct it, polish it but does not write it or transfer it on paper. I think, sometimes, a thing is only nurtured in the mind; instead of bringing it into the domain of writing (qaid-e tehreer main lana or muqayyad karna, all these the nice phrases of Urdu), you should leave it unsaid, unwritten, free so that it keeps getting nurtured. This is also a form of completion.
“There is this filmmaker in New Delhi who once told me that his edited final product always depresses him because this is not what he had wanted to make. This is something common between a great artiste and even small time artistes — they are never satisfied with the final product. Only somebody like Mustansar Husain Tarar would be happy with the end result. He is such a great writer.”
What to then do? “Instead of writing something bad and be depressed about it, there is the possibility that you leave it unwritten. The not-writing is an extremely important part of writing. It might seem like a cliché but you can’t see a being (wujood) without seeing nothingness (khala’a). It will have no meaning if we keep writing. If we leave it, not obsess about it, it will have a meaning. There is a way out. Why do the writers feel compelled to write, to produce a mediocre book every year, don’t we have enough raddi?”
I wanted to ask him the exact opposite — whether he was thinking at all of rebelling against his day job and turn to full-time writing?
“I rebel every day. Coming here is a rebellion too, when other people would prefer to spend their vacation in Moscow. But, honestly, there is also a third option — of doing my PhD. I have an interest in scholarly kind of writing. That too is a form of fiction. A narrator tells you his story; first he establishes his credentials, you can at once see the narrative in the first few paragraphs, he will tell the storyline also in the abstract, then different characters, who don’t need to be people, express their views.
“So if there is rebellion, it will be against job and fiction writing both.”
Researching on the Punjabi movement in the 1950s and 60s (the subject of his PhD), Julien has been collecting material from magazines in the last twenty years. He has strong views on the politics around Punjabi. Apart from research, he would also love to teach “provided I am given this opportunity”.
All his stories are kind of character-centric, about a lonely male. He picks the question mid-way, “Yes and he tells a story. I think my biggest challenge has been to write in a woman’s voice; it’s an unrealised dream. But I guess you have to be mindful of your natural limitations. To be able to get into a woman’s shoes is the mark of a great writer. This is a barrier I have not been able to cross; it’s much easier to cross over into a man’s body.”
Then he goes on to make an interesting observation, about this paradox of fiction, and why he does not want to write fiction. “I may be labelled a fiction writer but what really jolts people in fiction is the element of reality. For instance, I wrote a story ‘Mengal’ in which a man is beheaded. I wrote it in one draft because it was painful for me as well. I got a call from someone saying he could not sleep after reading it. Then, another friend called after reading ‘Zahid’ saying: “I cannot imagine I read this. How could I have read this?” She was referring to a scene describing torture on a woman and that was based on reality. So I don’t want to write fiction.
“On the other hand, I read editorials that are fictional. I read scholarly books that are fictional from beginning to end. They build a narrative, very artistically, so that readers can’t even understand that what they’re reading is falsehood.”
The danger in fiction, he says, is that people tend to take fiction lightly. He feels it is his duty as a writer to make sure they don’t take it lightly. “A writer has some responsibility and so does a reader. If you are only reading for pleasure, then sorry, I’m not addressing you. I don’t want to entertain people. I am not sure what I want to do but not entertain them certainly.”
His past work, he says, he is “slightly uncomfortable with,” because it seems to him those stories were written by someone else. “So when people ask me questions about them, I want to tell them I didn’t write them; they were written by someone who was present in this body a few years ago.”
Naturally, he is keen to talk about the new book, a collection of four stories. “That’s why I called it Chaurangi, because it has four colours. I was telling a friend that in the case of Freud, you have to kill your father, symbolically. So I have killed my babaas, my asataza (teachers), my favourite artistes. Otherwise, their ghosts would keep following me. One was a painter, another one was a qawwal I was madly in love with, one teacher in the traditional mode who didn’t write but his personality grew on me, and one old time likhari (writer) who is no more with us. So, in a way, I killed four of my fathers in this book.
“When you have finished writing a few things, you see a unity in some of them and you put them together. Here are four strong personalities in the field of arts and literature with whom I’d met at some point. Another thing that unites them is that all four of them die. I am somehow obsessed with death.”
What was the real challenge this time, I asked. “In Urdu, there is very little written about artists as opposed to writers and poets. It is as if literature reflects itself; there is reference to literature within literature. So I wanted to push the boundaries a bit, have something on painting and music. Very little is being written about painting in Urdu; so there was a dearth of vocabulary, metaphors. I met so many artists of that time; I was quite fascinated by the NCA of 1970s, especially because the character was associated with that time and place.”
He talks at length about the real life characters he has drawn on for other stories but he would rather let them stay ambiguous. “I want them to be read as simple stories on characters we encounter in the literary and artistic landscape of Pakistan.”
Julien may now be back in Russia but he is connected with the literary and artistic landscape of this place. He is connected also with the ordinary, disempowered fringe that not just exists but is eternalised in his stories. Another meeting and more conversation are eagerly awaited…