In 1977-78, I went to India on an American Institute of Indian Studies dissertation research fellowship. My topic was the genre of popular pamphlet literature called “qissah” in Urdu and “kissa” in Hindi. I wanted to study the genre as a form of secular narrative, one that fitted into its own niche in the spectrum of related popular genres. During that research year, I traveled widely in North India and bought everything I could find that called itself a “qissa” (my compromise English version of the term), most things that called themselves folk-opera (sangit), and varying numbers of examples of other genres. I wrapped them all in plastic bags and eventually shipped them home by book post.
During the year 1978-79, I wrote my dissertation under the guidance of C. M. Naim, in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. (For various reasons of research and teaching, however, the dissertation was not formally submitted and defended until 1981.) The dissertation was eventually published, with minimal revisions, as Marvelous Encounters: Folk Romance in Urdu and Hindi (New Delhi: Manohar Publications; and Riverdale, MD: The Riverdale Company, 1985). As always, I took an interest in the design of the cover, and we ended up with one that was based on a pamphlet version of the Hatim Ta'i story (he is encountering the 'pari-ru janvar'): *1985 cover*.
During the year 1978-79, I also worked part-time for Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, cataloguing a large number of the pamphlets I had brought home, and preparing them to form a special popular literature collection, which was to be housed in manila envelopes in file drawers at Regenstein. I did this partly for pragmatic reasons (I was a nomadic graduate student with hundreds and hundreds of pamphlets and no storage space; also, it was nice to be paid for the cataloguing) and partly for idealistic reasons (no library in the world systematically collects this material, and I wanted to ensure its preservation). Eventually the Regenstein material was microfiched and added to the S.A.M.P. collection as well, which pleased me very much.
At the time when I was collecting, the main genres of qissa and sangit were thriving. Buying samples was like dipping a bucket into the ocean. While I collected exhaustively, the material that I put in Regenstein was representative rather than comprehensive. This was partly because I envisioned the library collection merely as a cross-section of the genre at a certain point in time-- eventually to be up-dated, by me or someone else, with another cross-section taken ten or twenty years later. And of course it was partly because I wanted to retain some of the oldest, cutest, most evocative, most entertaining editions for my own research, rather than giving them up to the world at large-- which could never, I felt sure, cherish them as I did.
Since that time, my teaching and research have taken me further into my chosen fields of traditional Urdu and Hindi literature. My commitment to qissa developed into an even deeper commitment to its formidable relative, Urdu dastan literature. I also began to work seriously on the classical ghazal. However, at a certain point I felt the call of the qissas once again. Thus it came about that in the summer of 1991 I went again to India on a short-term A.I.I.S. research fellowship, to re-examine the qissa genre after a lapse of thirteen years. I had a number of fancy methodological things I wished to do, and taxonomic approaches to try out, and so on.
However, all such ideas vanished in smoke; to my dismay and real sadness, I found the genre dying. Or at least, I found it dying out in what I knew to be its former haunts. The same publishers who had sold me qissas in profusion thirteen years before now smiled pityingly when I asked for qissas, and laughed at the very thought of keeping them in stock. While a handful of the most popular qissas were still in print, especially in what the publishers called “kitabi sa'iz” (“book size,” more or less meaning paperback book format), most of the titles I had once found so easily were entirely unavailable. When I recovered from my demoralized condition, I devoted the summer to buying all the old, decrepit, surviving qissas that I could possibly find. By coaxing and cajoling the publishers, by drinking many cups of tea with them, etc., I persuaded them to bring out from the remotest shelves the inevitable ratty old bundles tied with string, and then to sell me whatever pathetic remnants they had. The prices they charged me were always either sympathetically extra-cheap, or cynically extra-expensive. It was sad to re-acquire tattered relics of the same editions I’d found thirteen years before, and to realize that they’d never been reprinted since. (During their long heyday, qissas were reprinted constantly, every two or three years at the least.)
I resolved to provide for my beloved genre the best monument in my power. The first and most vital task involved preservation. For obvious reasons, it was now a life-or-death matter to preserve every bit of my collection. It was already clear that in the case of a number of older titles I might well have the only surviving copy in the world. Therefore I added to my finds from the summer of 1991, the whole of my long-hoarded private stash from thirteen years before. So the preservation and accessibility of these materials is now as good as I can possibly make it.
And I've finally got a fully-diacriticized version of my dissertation ready to go online, in PDF format.
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