ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Begunaah Qaidi – Reading a contemporary political prisoner in translation


Khare Swarnim - University of Michigan, Asian Languages and Cultures, Ann Arbor, United States


20 – Self-translation, translating the self: Multilingual writers in South Asia


 This paper looks at an Urdu text called Begunaah Qaidi written by Abdul Wahid Sheikh. Located within the (re)emerging field of prison writing in India, Begunaah Qaidi straddles more than one genre – a prison memoir, a testimony and a manual written specifically for women and men who find themselves in prison as political prisoners, falsely accused of crimes against the state. The text plays with forms of address and ‘intended recipients’, pivoting from addressing Muslim youth to the state to the general reader. Translated into the Devanagri and into English, Begunaah Qaidi compels us to ask questions of scale and processes; how does the text’s circulation increase in the public sphere every time it is translated? What are the underlying logics which govern Sheikh’s decision to write the text in the Nastaliq script while being a multilingual subject?

In reproducing the text in translation, Sheikh works  with his translators to work across postcolonially evolved language standardization in India to demonstrate translation occupies a powerful space outside the canon yet within vernacular public spheres to make complex calls for justice and recuperation. In placing Begunaah Qaidi squarely within the tradition of prison writing from late colonial South Asia with writers like Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Yashpal and Agyeya, I read Sheikh’s text as a vehicle of the possibilities of translation in South Asia–  it deconstructs homolingual regimes which seek to equate languages and community.