The Author who lost the garden and the nest: Ahmed Ali

Vimal Kumar
9 Min Read
Ahmed Ali

A file photo of Ahmad Ali||Source:

William Dalrymple once interviewed the Author in Karachi. It was all about knowing about Author’s love and affection towards Delhi which encouraged him to pen down the magnificent book, Twilight in Delhi. At the same time to be aware of what made him move to Pakistan after the partition. During his discussion, William found him as an angry man with often sudden outbursts of anger like a warmed frying pan. Ahmed Ali once said, “Now no country is my country. Delhi is dead; the city that was … the language … the culture. Everything I knew is finished.” And at the same time, William enquired why you have opted for Pakistan? Mr. Ali spluttered, “I opted for Pakistan. I did not! Pakistan is not my country. Never was. That place is a damn bunch of feudal lords … robbers, bloody murderers, kidnappers.”

Born in Delhi, British India, Ahmed Ali was educated at Aligarh Muslim University and Lucknow University. He obtained numerous accolades during the course of his study. He achieved the highest marks in English in the history of the university.

From 1932 to 1946, he taught at the leading Indian universities including Allahabad University and his alma mater in Lucknow. He also joined the Bengal Senior Educational Service as professor and head of the English Department at Presidency College, Calcutta (1944–47). At the time of partition between India and Pakistan, he was the British Council Visiting Professor to Nanjing University, as appointed by the British government of India.

When he tried to return home after the Partition, K. P. S. Menon (then India’s ambassador to China) would not allow it because Ali had not indicated his preferences as a government employee; that is, whether to remain in India or transfer to Pakistan. As a result, he was forced to go to Pakistan.

In 1948, he moved to Karachi. Later, he was appointed Director of Foreign Publicity for the Pakistani Government. At the behest of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, he joined the Pakistan Foreign Service in 1950. He became Pakistan’s first envoy to the  People’s Republic of China. He established formal diplomatic relations that same year. He also helped to establish an embassy in Morocco.

Professor Ahmed Ali was also Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities at Michigan State University in 1975, Fulbright Visiting Professor of History at Western Kentucky University, and Fulbright Visiting Professor of English at Southern Illinois University in 1978-79. He was Visiting Professor at the University of Karachi during 1977-79, which later conferred on him an honorary degree of Doctor of Literature in 1993.

Ahmed Ali passed away on 14 January 1994 in Karachi. 

Literary Stint

Ahmed Ali started his literary career at a young age. He has written numerous short stories, poetry, plays, and novels throughout his life.

He gained remarkable fame with his first novel in English Twilight in Delhi, which was published by the Hogarth Press in London in 1940. The classical novel set in 1911-19 with a vivid depiction of life in Delhi, British India. it mainly focuses on rapidly changing socio-political changes from the viewpoint of Mir Nihal, his family, and the society around him. It also has a shade of gloominess, sadness, separation, social conflicts, gender discrimination, history about the downfall of Mughal emperors, and the effects of colonialism and imperialism on Indian Muslims in Delhi

Al-Quran, A Contemporary Translation (Princeton University Press, Oxford University Press & Akrash Publishing) is his most notable contribution in the field of translation. According to the book’s description, it is “approved by eminent Islamic scholars”, and “it has come to be recognized as one of the best existing translations of the Holy Quran.” Other languages he translated from, apart from Arabic and Urdu, included Indonesian and Chinese.

Loss of Garden and Nest

When India underwent the bloody partition, the Author, Ahmed Ali, was British Council Visiting Professor to Nanjing University, as appointed by the British government of India. As his assignment completed, he expressed his interest to go back home. He went to the Indian ambassador in Peking.  He was refused entry to India which forced him to move to Karachi. That was the moment when the garden of Delhi was snatched away.

Though he was forced to move to Pakistan, he was not an admirer of Pakistan itself. In one of the interviews with William Dalrymple, he said angrily, “He never opted for Pakistan. I did not! Pakistan is not my country. Never was. That place is a damn bunch of feudal lords … robbers, bloody murderers, kidnappers.”

His internationally acclaimed novel Twilight in Delhi was stopped by Pakistan officials. His books were not published there. When copies of Twilight in Delhi arrived at the Karachi customs from India, they sent them back: said the book was about the “forbidden” city across the border. They implied the culture was foreign and subversive.

He felt that Pakistan never accepted him, and India disowned him. He has been weeded out from his garden and thrown from his nest.

Love and hate towards Delhi

Hate is just a reflection of love. Both are same intensity pace; merely, the direction is different. It is vividly seen in the thought of Ahmed Ali. His love for Delhi was unquestionable. It encouraged him to pen down a magnificent novel describing the beauty and his own feelings for the magical place. After he was forced to move to Pakistan, he visited Delhi almost 13 years after the partition. He was inquisitive to know whether love from Delhi towards him is still warm and affectionate! He found everything upside down. He stayed in a new hotel- the Ambassador – which he later realized that the hotel had been built on top of a graveyard where several of his friends were buried. The Mohalla which talks to him once it sees him became a stranger. His house was split into 10 parts. He found that it is not the same Delhi. The place which happened to be the playground of his emotions, thoughts, and imagery was just a depressing burial ground. He promised himself that he will never visit that place again.  But he has to visit again.

He was invited to Australia to give lectures in Australia. Due to a technical snag, the plane was diverted to Delhi. Though the plane landed in Delhi, he refused to get out. He said to the staff that I am not getting out. I am not placing my foot on that soil again which was sacred to me and have been defiled now.

The entire staff of the airport went there to get him out, but he did not move. When the staff asked why he was behaving that way. He simply sat in his seat and quoted Mir Taqi Mir at them:

What matters it, O breeze,

If now has come the spring

When I have lost them both

The garden and my nest? ‘

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