Biography of Ahmed Ali

Ahmed Ali was an Indian (later Pakistani) author and scholar who was one of the most prominent figures in the Progressive Writers’ Movement, which he also co-founded. His primary subject was the social changes occurring in India in the 20th century, a period during which Ali saw his country gain independence from British colonial rule, while at the same time Westernizing due to contact with English culture. During his career, Ali produced novels, short stories, poetry, and criticism, writing in both Urdu and English.

He was born in New Delhi in 1910. His father was a civil servant, so Ali had access to education. When he was five years old, he was taught Qu’ranic recitation, which gave him an early basis in language and poetry. He began his study of English in high school, and when he was in college took a class with English poet Eric C. Dickinson. Dickinson became Ali’s mentor. In 1927, still in college, he published his first of many short stories (“When The Funeral Was Crossing The Bridge”).

During the course of his studies, he met a number of people who would become his friends, collaborators, and contemporaries. Among them were Rashid Jahan, a doctor and early feminist writer; Mahmuduz Zafar, who would later marry Jahan; and Sajjad Zaheer. The four together would publish a short story collection called Angarey (Burning Coals), which would jumpstart the Progressive Writers’ Movement. This group of left-leaning writers reflected the increasingly radical position of many young Indians who rejected colonial rule.

While Ali was one of the founding four members of the movement, he soon parted ways with the other three due to a political disagreement. Jaha, Zafar, and Zaheer were all members of the Communist Party of India, and believed that writing should serve an explicitly propagandistic function. They were heavily influenced by the Soviet concept of “socialist realism.” Ali, on the other hand, did not want “Progressive” to necessarily mean “Communist,” and argued that art should serve other purposes beyond socio-political ones.

It was after this rift occurred that Ali began work on his most famous and acclaimed novel, Twilight in Delhi. The book was originally published in English by a British publisher, and was extremely well received by the country’s top critics upon its release in 1940. In that same decade, Ali began teaching, which included some time spent in Nanking as an English professor. While there, Britain relinquished control of the Indian subcontinent. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 officially partitioned what was once British India into two dominions: India and Pakistan. From abroad, Ali was forced to choose which of the two newly independent nations would be his new home, and he chose Pakistan.

In his later years, Ali explored other pursuits, including civil service and small business ownership. However, he never stopped writing, and, in 1984, his long-awaited English translation of the Qu’ran was published. He died in 1994.

Study Guides on Works by Ahmed Ali

Twilight in Delhi was Ahmed Ali’s first novel, set around 1911 to 1919, giving a descriptive image of India’s changing social, political, and cultural climate post colonialism, and recounting the state of Muslims in India during that time....