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Prescribing Norms

Gillian Wright

By Nazir Ahmad . Translated from the Urdu by  M. Kempson. Edited by C.M. Naim
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 140, Rs. 395.00


The first miracle ascribed to Jesus was the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Canaan. The wedding guests could not understand why their host had saved his best wine until last when most of them were too inebriated to notice the quality of the wine. Similarly, in this book, when you have an excellent new introduction to the character and life of the extraordinary author Nazir Ahmad, it is impossible to understand why it is tucked away at the back as an ‘Afterword’.   It’s rightful place is taken by a stuffy preface by Sir William Muir, KCSI. This preface and M. Kempson’s translation of The Repentance of Nussooh, one of the Urdu language’s first novels, both date from the 19th century. The translation was used by the trainees of the Indian Civil Service as a crib when they studied the original novel as part of their Urdu course. Then the title page carried only Kempson’s name, the author’s being tucked away as a footnote. The translator’s sense of power is indicated by the way he played with the original text, excising whatever he thought unnecessary or prolix.   Ideally for this century we should have a fresh translation to display at its best the vigour and humour of Nazir Ahmad’s idiomatic prose as he tells the story of a man who has a vision during an attack of cholera. The vision, of God’s Court of Justice for the Dead, has echoes of the justice system the British introduced into India, and convinces Nussooh, the central character, that he has led an irreligious and wayward life and will face a horrible fate after death unless he reforms at once. On recovery, he sets about improving himself, his wife and his six children, with various degrees of success and introduces them to a God fearing, moral life. Although set in a Muslim family, the book is not a primer for Islamic practice but an argument for parents to be responsible in the way they bring up their children and in the example they set for them. As Nazir Ahmad himself writes in his own preface (also published at the end of the book): Whenever mention has been made of religious requirements, it has been done in a manner suggesting that others too have similar beliefs, the difference is only in terminology and ...

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