Ajmal Kamal is an editor, writer, publisher and bookseller. He edits the Urdu literary quarterly, Aaj
What are you reading these days? For the last five years or so, my reading seems to have become more focused. It was a time when I encountered a vague idea in the course of a personal quest that all, or almost all, that is happening with us today as a society and as individuals members or groups of the society can be contextualised and understood in the perspective provided by what we have been writing and publishing ever since the printing press became an influential part of our lives.
This idea more or less coincided with my personal circumstances. Having contracted an eye ailment, and faced with the prospect of steadily deteriorating eyesight, I may have felt inside me that I need to use the light more judiciously as long as it is there.
Although reading for pure fun hasn’t gone out of my life — it cannot — but the vague idea and the realisation I mentioned have been keeping my reading more targeted. I have started reading the treasure of the last 150 years or more, produced mainly in Urdu in the northern subcontinent — books of fiction, biography, history, religion and rational analysis; periodicals, popular magazines and newspapers; pamphlets, tracts and polemical writings — with a new angle, and I have found this focused and critical reading stimulating and rewarding.
I feel excited when this material, which constitutes our intellectual history, starts to fall into place and explain bit by bit our destiny defined by the questions that we chose to explore and political and cultural decisions that our prominent personalities made in the period of one and a half century. One explores these writings with care and gradually deepening insight — of course it involves a lot of rereading as well — into the worldview we have chosen to adopt and which is determining the coordinates of our individual and collective life today. In short, we are products of the process of social change that marks this defining length of time. I feel that this process needs to be understood in all its nuances, and this deep personal quest of mine drives me on.
In 2010, I edited some classical and modern Urdu texts for the Oxford University Press. These included some old dastans — Dastan-i Amir Hamza, Tilism-i Hoshruba, Alif Laila — a few old mystical writings — Safarnama-i Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht, Sier-ul Aqtab — and collected works of two important modern writers — Mirza Farhatullah Baig and Mohammad Khalid Akhtar. I was fortunate to have this 10-hours-a-day engagement with such significant, absorbing texts for the entire year as it fitted well with the reading project that I embarked upon about two years previously.
What I wish is to be able to see our intellectual journey on the path of modernity as a clear line which is necessary for it to give us the sense of our modern history that we need in order to make sense of our present. During the long hours that were spent at Bedil Library, Karachi, and the Punjab Public Library, Lahore, in the last one year, I have discovered the treasure that is available in the files of numerous periodicals or all kinds. But since paper has a limited life, this treasure needs to be urgently saved.
I was initiated on this project to digitise, catalogue and index complete files of these periodicals early last year by a German university. The aim is that these periodicals could be accessed by researchers and general readers and could be made a part of our sense of history. I have selected more than a thousand Urdu periodicals to be digitised as the first step of the project and have been trying to get local educational, research and other institutions interested in this absolutely essential undertaking.
As the editor of an Urdu literary quarterly, I get to read a great number of original and translated writings being produced today — including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary and social criticism etc. Since I translate more or less regularly for my quarterly, I get a chance to read and select from writings in a couple of languages other than Urdu as well.
These days a lot of my reading happens on my computer screen, which excites me no less than the printed word.