Urdu in India and a man with a mission: Arif Iqbal and his Urdu Book Review

By Yoginder Sikand

A narrow lane leads out from a maze of crowded, winding streets in the heart of Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid area. Ancient crumbling havelis line the lane, which, probably dating back to Mughal times, is lined on either side with open drains laden with garbage. Cycle rickshaws, cattle and pedestrians jostle with each other amidst the interminable din of bells clanking, customers and shopkeepers loudly haggling and craftsmen in dim-lit hovels hammering away at tin sheets. At a nondescript building at one end of the lane a flight of broken stairs leads down to a dingy basement. It is there-housed in two diminutive rooms-that Urdu Book Review, India’s only Urdu journal devoted solely to book reviews, has its premises- a telling comment on the sad state to which Urdu has been reduced in the land of its birth.

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Muhammad Arif Iqbal, the amiable middle-aged editor of the magazine, is a man with a mission. “Urdu has been grossly neglected, by the state and by Urdu-speakers, and Urdu Book Review represents a modest effort to revive and promote the language,” he says. The bi-monthly magazine was launched in 1995. “There is nothing of the sort anywhere else in South Asia”, Iqbal proudly says. The only other Urdu book review journal, published from Pakistan, deals solely with Pakistani books. Urdu Book Review, on the other hand, covers new Urdu books published all over the world, including India and Pakistan.

Iqbal served as production manager of a leading Indian Muslim publishing house, the Delhi-based Markazi Maktaba Islami, for ten years, and in the course of this had the opportunity to interact with many publishing houses. “That made me realize how much the Urdu publishing industry has to learn from others”, he says. “A week-long course in publishing organized by an institute really changed me”, he relates. “I was the only Muslim there, and, interacting with the course instructors and other students, I realized that Urdu publishers have much room for improvement. This experience inspired me with the idea of launching an Urdu book review magazine in order to help the Urdu language and the Urdu publishing industry.”

Modestly priced at Rs. 100 per annum, Urdu Book Review comes out as a 100-odd page magazine. Separate sections are devoted to book reviews, announcements of new titles along with the addresses of their publishers, obituaries of noted writers, names of new Ph.D. awardees in Urdu and related fields, summaries of writings in the Urdu press and biographical notes on important Urdu scholars. The magazine has a print-run of around 2000 copies, of which some 300 are sent free of cost to scholars and institutions. It receives hardly any advertisements and does not earn enough to cover costs, which Iqbal meets by doing contract printing jobs.

Urdu publishers

“Urdu publishers in India have particular problems of their own, besides the general problems that they share with other publishers,” Iqbal says. “Few of them have professionally qualified editorial teams. Technically, they are way behind Hindi and English publishers. They don’t do book launches, and almost no Urdu newspaper has a book review column through which new titles can be introduced to the public”, he comments. “Since the number of Urdu readers in India is rapidly falling, Urdu publishers that used to publish two or three thousand copies of a book have now cut down to around five hundred, and even that takes some two years to sell. That is why some of them are now shifting to publishing in Hindi and English instead,” he says. “However,” he adds, “few of these are original titles, most of them being low-quality translations.”

“A distinct lack of vision,” is Iqbal’s answer as to why Indian Urdu publishers produce books almost entirely on historical, religious and literary issues but hardly anything on the empirical realities of the Indian Muslims. “Many Urdu publishers do not have a sound academic background, often being just businessmen. They may have inherited their businesses from their fathers and run them simply as a commercial concern. But this cannot be said to be healthy commercialism. They suffer from a distinct lack of professionalism and often lack any social commitment,” he rues.

“Most Urdu publishers are guided solely by the profit motive,” Iqbal goes on. “So, they produce what will bring them profits. They don’t have any system to commission experts to write books on particular subjects. They generally publish whatever they get if they think it would be profitable, often without caring for the social relevance of their contents. They just want quick returns.”

Sectarian publishing

Thus, for instance, Iqbal says, many Urdu publishers are associated with one particular Muslim sect or the other, and they churn out books that rant and rave against other Muslim sects. “Some of these publishers are actually paid to produce books in favour of or in opposition to certain governments and rival sects,” he reveals. Living as a minority, such sectarianism fanned by certain publishing houses has serious consequences for the Muslim community, he says. “The sort of sectarianism actively promoted by certain Urdu publishing houses has had a major role in keeping Muslim divided, so much so that religious scholars of the different sects often refuse to even sit with each other on a common platform,” he says.

This relates to the social background of a significant section of Urdu authors, the ulema, who are graduates of madrasas. The sort of education that they receive in traditional madrasas is reflected in the sorts of books that they write. “Generally, madrasa students are kept unaware of the world surrounding them, and so when they graduate and step outside, they are often unable to properly adjust or relate to the world,” Iqbal rues. For their part, “modern” educated, middle-class Muslims increasingly prefer to write and read in English, thus narrowing down the class base which the Urdu publishing industry caters to. Further, Iqbal says, many middle-class Muslims seem to distance themselves from the Muslim masses, taking little interest in their problems and concerns. “And so,” he adds, “a class of Muslims that could have played a key role in revitalizing the Muslim or Urdu publishing industry is largely disinterested in doing anything of the sort.”

Countering Islamophobia

In the current context of growing Islamophobia, Iqbal says, Muslim-owned publishing houses, including Urdu publishers, have a major role to play in countering anti-Muslim discourses. But in this, he laments, they have not been very successful. “Rebuttal of anti-Muslim propaganda is generally done in Urdu, through books and magazines, which few non-Muslims can read. Thus, their rebuttals do not reach the readers that they should. It is like preaching to the converted,” he rues. “Few Muslim publishing houses bring out literature aimed at non-Muslims and written in a mode that they can understand.”

“Perhaps,” Iqbal reflects, “Muslim publishing houses suffer from a sort of fear. They fear that if they actively challenge misinformation about Islam and Muslims they may be targeted. They don’t want to court controversy.” “And, in any case,” he says, there are almost no Muslim research institutes or publication houses that do any serious analyses of anti-Muslim writings, and so their efforts to rebut this propaganda is generally quite ineffective.”


Another area that the Urdu publishing industry is seriously lacking in, Iqbal relates, is in the matter of translations. “So many good books are coming out in the market in English, on Islam, on Muslims and also on other issues which Urdu-readers might be interested in. Yet, translations of such books have been negligible,” he says. “Most Urdu publishers would be blissfully unaware of these new books, so narrow is their vision,” he argues.

Given the numerous problems that the Urdu publishing industry faces, Iqbal stresses that it is vital that Urdu publishers form an effective association of their own. Two such associations do exist, but he claims that they are virtually defunct. “We need an active association that could help Urdu publishers be more professionally and technically competent,” he insists. “It could help the industry produce more socially relevant literature. It could also promote interaction between Urdu publishers and others, so that they can learn from them.” “Some of us,” he adds, “think we don’t need to learn from others, being content with living in our own little islands.” “But that,” he insists, “is ridiculous.”

“Urdu faces a grim future in India,” Iqbal tells me as we wind up our conversation, “but there are spaces and opportunities that we need to make us of.” “Ultimately,” he says, “it is up to lovers of Urdu to save, protect and promote the language.” And by publishing his magazine against heavy odds for over a decade now, Iqbal shows what a major difference a single individual can make in this regard.

Muhammad Arif Iqbal can be contacted on [email protected]
Urdu Book Review can be accessed on www.urdubookreview.com