Wed, 10/26/2022 - 10:58am Natalie Wang

Ahmed Ali and British Printers: Natalie Wang reflects on her Winter-Summer 2022 CESTA internship with MAPP, Stanford University

This past year, I worked with Dr. Alice Staveley to append metadata to documents and archival holdings collected from The Hogarth Press. We catalogued information about the date, content descriptions, addresses of both creators and recipients, alongside others. Courtesy of the University of Reading's Special Collections, I worked with digital scans of typescript and handwritten letter correspondences, financial estimates for bookbinding and publication, ephemera, copyright requests, translation rights, and a wide variety of information regarding the printing and publication process. I did my research on the following areas: Canadian rights and American rights for Virginia Woolf's works, several of William Plomer's novels, as well as works from Viola Tree, Julia Strachey, Viscount Cecil, Hugh Walpole, and Ahmed Ali. 

A fascinating aspect of my research was the publication process for Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi. Ahmed Ali was a Pakistani novelist known for pioneering the modern Urdu short story, as well as a notable translation of the Quran into Arabic, Urdu, Indonesian, and Chinese. Twilight in Delhi, a novel published by the Hogarth Press in 1940, was the first novel he had written in English. The novel details the history of the decline of Muslim aristocracy following British colonialism in the early 1900s. 

Through appending the metadata in his files, I discovered that there are several correspondences amongst Ali, Leonard Woolf, the Garden City printers, and E. M. Forster, drawing attention to how the publication process treated Twilight in Delhi in comparison to other contemporary works. In a key series of letters, Ali mentions that the printers had heavily criticized much of the content of the novel for harboring anti-British sentiments.

Interference at the level of the printers is not as well-known as other forms of modernist censorship, but deserves more historical scrutiny (see Bradshaw and Potter). Many works of the time ran into controversies over their content. Books that countered the ideology of social purity – The Rainbow, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness – received heavy censorship or were outright banned in Britain (Parkes 3-4).  Novels and other publications that could be blasphemous, libelous, or held profane language – Blast, Everlasting Mercy, A Farewell to Arms – confronted literary censorship as well (Jaffe 331).  Other forms of social censorship of literature attached to works that were viewed as having the potential to be seditious or destabilizing to the British government. 

In the start of World War II, the printers’ objections to Ali’s Twilight in Delhi stemmed from an increasingly strained history on international policy between Britain and India, including the growing independence movement in India and rising religious tensions there. A few years before Twilight in Delhi was published, Ali had collaborated with a group of young Urdu fiction writers to create the anthology Angarey, which was ultimately banned by  the British government in India since it contained material believed to be offensive to the public. Ali’s subsequent stories on subjective, psychological explorations of Muslims (stories such as “Mahavaton Ki Ek Raat” and “Hamari Gali”) served as a cornerstone for Twilight in Delhi. These same explorations are found in the printers’ criticisms: the Muslim characters in Twilight in Delhi, coupled with the sociohistorical insight into Delhi’s past and (book) present, did not depict British colonialist efforts positively. Ali’s letters in the Hogarth Press archives make it staggeringly clear that his writing could arouse political objections within the printers’ offices which were not immune to and could facilitate censorship’s long reach.

Further details I unearthed include: significant passages in the manuscript had been deemed seditious and full of propaganda, even with contemporary works of similar political content managing to be published without much controversy. Ali’s correspondence is notable in that he has absolute bluntness on what he believes the printers are operating by: a passion for imperialism, especially in the attitude towards non-English authors. Of particular note is an exchange of letters with E. M. Forster whose very long letter in the archive gives a full accounting of his intervention in the debate and his views of the printers’ criticism of Twilight in Delhi. Forster observes to Leonard Woolf that the anti-British issue would not have been a problem for many other printers and that had his novel, A Passage to India, been subject to the same objections it too might not have been published. Forster implicitly wonders about the discrete printers’ culture handling this particular novel. Ultimately, notable British authors Forster, Desmond MacCarthy, and Virginia Woolf herself approached the Official Censor (who was Harold Nicolson), who found nothing seditious or problematic in Ali’s novel (Anderson 81; Snaith 117). The book would be published by the Hogarth Press after Ahmed Ali returned to India in 1940.

The censorship complaints and controversies surrounding the pre-publication history of Twilight in Delhi is revealing because even while the social purity ideology or attitudes towards what was deemed “libelous” might have shifted or decreased in influence with time, colonialist international policies continued to shape the invisible politics of production behind the plotline of the novel itself.

Works Cited

Anderson, David D. “Ahmed Ali and Twilight in Delhi” Mahfil Vol. 7,  No. 1, Spring-Summer 1971, 81-86.

Bradshaw, David and Rachel Potter, eds. Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Parkes, Adam. Modernism and the Theater of Censorship. Oxford University Press, 1996. 

Jaffe, Aaron. “Publication, Patronage, Censorship” in The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Anna Snaith, “The Hogarth Press and Networks of Anti-Colonialism,” in Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers, ed. Helen Southworth. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Cover of Twilight in Delhi