Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tariq Rahman as a researcher

I was lucky to have caught up with Dr Tariq Rahman only a few days before his departure for the US. The professor of linguistics had been invited by the University of California, Berkeley to occupy the Pakistan Studies Chair there. “The idea behind such chairs is to create an academic presence of Pakistan to shed light on what the state stands for, what its strong points are, what its inadequacies might be, and how these can be addressed,” he explained. Therefore, for the next three to four years Dr Rahman will be lecturing and holding seminars and workshops on Pakistan, its culture, politics, economy and history. Dr Rahman is really glad to get a chance to conduct his own research. He would also be helping students at the doctoral and postdoctoral levels in their research on Pakistan.
Two Kinds of Research
Dr Rahman intends carrying out two kinds of research while at Berkeley. “One, I want to write a thematic history of Pakistan and the other is going to be a social history of Urdu,” he elaborates. “As there is a chronological history, there is a thematic history too. It’s going to have a chapter on, let’s say, political history, a chapter on education, etc.” The kind of history Dr Rahman has in mind will be derived from sources, which have generally been ignored. “So it will be a truthful history based upon accounts from all sources and not just the official account.”

The other book he plans will be a history of Urdu as used in the social institutions of Muslim society of northern India and Pakistan. For instance, how it was used in poetry, quotations, schools, madressahs, films, law courts as well as the courts of kings. “It’s going to tell us about what happens in a language, what power relations change, what economic advantages are gained and lost, which new elite are formed, etc.”

The good news is that now Dr Rahman also plans translating his books into Urdu. “It would create more readers with a better understanding of such issues. One of my books which I really wanted to see translated in Urdu was Language and Politics. I did not find anyone to translate my books until Mr Ahmed Saleem of the SDPI took up the project of his own accord and informed me about his work after doing a few chapters. I don’t know what happened after that.” Dr Rahman is quite fond of reading Urdu classics. “I can write very simple Urdu myself. I think I’ll start translating one of my thinner books first,” he thinks aloud.
Tariq Rahman’s Works
The most successful of Dr Rahman’s 14 books, Language and Politics in Pakistan, is in its fourth edition now. This and another, Language, Ideology and Power, were both the result of painstaking research which took some five years to complete. “One should normally work with a research team. Since I did not have a team, I hired part-time researchers to visit libraries and do some of the fieldwork. Some people also volunteered. The research comprised mostly fieldwork. I had to go to many places — Chitral, Gilgit, Karachi, Hyderabad, the interiors of Sindh, Balochistan and also India and England. Most of the travelling and gathering of facts was done by myself except in some parts of the Punjab and the Frontier where I would send out people with questionnaires.” And Dr Rahman does all this without proper funding. “I plan projects for myself. No university, government department or NGO assigns them to me. So nobody finances it.” But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Whenever Dr Rahman is invited abroad for a conference he uses his ticket to reach the place where he goes on to spend from his own pocket to prolong his stay and do some research work before returning home. But even without funds, it is now easier to conduct research since his books have become bestsellers and his name is well known. When conducting research for his very first book, History of Pakistani Literature in English, Dr Rahman came across hurdles and even dead ends. “People would simply refuse me access to official documents.”

Doors also don’t open easily when there is not a proper outline of what the researcher wants to research and write. “Sometimes I make a synopsis sometimes I do not but there always is a mental outline that keeps me focused. I started writing Language and Politics without a synopsis and as the research carried on, the direction the book was going to take became clearer. In real research there can’t be a synopsis as you may stumble upon so many things which you didn’t know about before. How can I say beforehand where a research is going to lead me? Still sometimes I have to make a synopsis to please, that is if I find any, financiers who need to make a budget. Very frankly I tell them that this is what I have in mind but I don’t now if I’ll lose interest in it on the way or make something else out it. That is where even the possibility of funding stops.”

So has he ever really lost interest and left a book midway? “Yes, it has happened. But,” he adds “it wasn’t a half done book. It was something that never really took off. I wanted to write about the Indian views on the events of 1857. The British version is already known but what about the Indian perspective on it and in how many different languages are those Indian views. I collected some material, started writing it but then left it. I just thought that it would be a book on one aspect whereas I would like something relevant and therefore I hit upon the idea of writing the thematic history of Pakistan first”.

At the time of this interview, when there was no book writing going on (he had just finished with Language and Education and Denizens of Alien Worlds), Dr Rahman was reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A typical writing day for him begins at around 9:00am. “I check my notes and write till 1:00pm, have lunch, take some rest and resume work in the afternoon till 6:00pm. Then I go for a walk or wherever else I may need to go. If not that, then I do pleasure reading in the evening. When I am writing a book I read other books by other authors that are remotely related to the subject I am writing on. It can be a historical account of the contemporary kind or a literary book which should be able to, if nothing else inspires me.”

Tariq Rahman’s habit of reading
The habit of reading for Dr Rahman goes back to the time when he was a student at Burn Hall, Abbotabad. “My two main interests back then were reading and horse riding. That was also the time I thought joining the army was an easy way out,” he reminisces. Join the army he did but when Bangladesh happened, he felt he could not carry on with life in the army. “My superiors thought I should stay on and try to get used to it but, really, I was quite disillusioned. I finally resigned as captain in 1978.”

That was when he decided to study further. He got top marks and the highest positions at the university level “but I knew that I had not gotten first position because my standard was very high. I got it because the university’s standard was low.” He found out that this was exactly the case while at Sheffield on a scholarship from the British Council. “I wanted to do a PhD in war studies. My idea was that it is only after studying war that one can talk about peace.”

To make a long story short, Dr Rahman wasn’t allowed to take war studies. So he did his doctorate in English while also studying history (of the British army to be more precise). “I came back to Pakistan and became an associate professor of English literature at the University of Peshawar. I started teaching not the subject I had researched but the history of English language. That is what got me interested in linguistics.”

Getting another scholarship later, also through the British Council, he did an MLitt in pure linguistics while also researching his book, Language and Politics in
Pakistan. “Language and Politics is really about internal conflict based on language misunderstandings. It was not an interest in languages that got me into linguistics but an interest in social sciences and this is how I was able to combine my interest in conflict and war.”

Apart from embarking on a scholastic career soon after leaving the army, Dr Rahman also started penning short stories. “I began writing short stories from the age of 18 or 19 but at that time I would just put them aside not giving them to anyone for publication. One reason was that I didn’t think they were up to the mark. And the second reason was that I was in the army and in those days one was not allowed to publish their work. I could have acquired permission had I tried but...” He shrugs and smiles.

Still his stories did see the light of day. “I resigned from the army in 1978 and in 1979 my first short story was published in The Muslim. His first collection of stories is titled The Legacy and Other Short Stories. Another collection followed and received good reviews too. “But I had this feeling that my short stories were too pessimistic. One indication of a good story is that one likes to go back to it for pleasure and I never reread my stories. To me that was an indication that they were not readable.”

The last short story Dr Rahman wrote was in 1995. “It’s not that I don’t want to write more stories, it is just that I think that my talent was limited and must have come to an end. Another thing is that I spend so much time on research that I really don’t get the time for penning fiction.”

The professor has often run into people who tell him that someone else too with the same name writes but only stories. “When I tell them that that person and myself are one and the same they are quite taken aback. They just don’t put the two together,” he says laughing.

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