Learning Urdu, Visiting Chicago (MLA/SALA)

For the past three days I was in Chicago, at the South Asian Literature Association conference and then MLA.

At the SALA conference (Narayan, I know, is chuckling every time I use that acronym!), I was presenting on Sa'adat Hasan Manto's "Letters to Uncle Sam" ("Chacha Sam Ke Nam-Ek Khat," Doosra Khat, etc.). Though I was mainly working with Khalid Hasan's translation, I didn't want it to be one of those papers about a writer that fails to look at the original text -- but to do that in Manto's case one needs to be able to read Urdu!

Therefore, I actually spent a couple of days early this week re-learning Urdu script. I had been taught it briefly in a Hindi class in college fifteen years ago, but since then I'd completely forgotten it. It turns out that one can (re)learn a script with a little work and (in Urdu's case) a lot of concentration. Luckily, Manto's particular vocabulary and style of writing seems to be fairly close to Hindustani, so I was actually able to make some use of the original text in the paper. I will have to do much more work with it if I want to publish the paper, though. (Incidentally, the seeds of the paper were planted in this blog post from last year. The academic paper is much more argument-driven and less informal, of course)

This time I'm going to keep practicing reading Urdu every so often (perhaps using the Urdu short stories at the excellent Annual of Urdu Studies journal as fodder), so hopefully I won't forget. If anyone wants to read along with me -- or indeed, help me out! -- please let me know by email or in comments. (I might take a stab at translating this short poem (PDF) next week.)

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The conferences went fine on the whole. I missed Raji Sunder Rajan's keynote and the Hawley/Krishnaswamy plenary at SALA due to a professional appointment I had at the larger MLA conference, but on the whole it's nice to see SALA improve a little every year -- there were some great papers presented this year. Unfortunately, the audiences at some panels are still too small; it seems like very few people come to SALA just to hear papers, and that's too bad.

I also had a decent time at MLA, seeing a few panels, and also catching up with a number of grad school friends. Good luck to everyone on the job market, and congratulations to Candice on her book.

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Wednesday night I got away from the conferences and went to the Indo-Pak shops and restaurants on Devon Avenue, which is Chicago's equivalent of New Jersey's Oak Tree Road (Iselin/Edison) or Jackson Heights, Queens. It happened to be the night Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated, and the restaurant where I ate (Zam Zam) was buzzing with talk about it -- not all of it intelligent, unfortunately. I overheard one Pakistani 'uncle' sarcastically telling his friends that he thought Benazir's death was effectively a kind of suicide (khudkushi), so what's the big deal, why get upset? ... sad.

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On Friday, Sepoy braved heavy snow and drove into central Chicago to meet up for lunch. We went to a "Cabbie" restaurant called Kababish, where they serve *really* authentic, homestyle desi khana. (It's so homestyle, there aren't even menus -- you just tell them what you want!) Naturally, we discussed the situation in Pakistan (for analysis and links, you should really go to Sepoy's Chapati Mystery blog; as I've been traveling, I haven't really been keeping up)