Manzoor Ahtesham, Writer Who Brought Bhopal to Life, Dies at 73

He focused with forensic precision on his native city, which was marked by an industrial tragedy in 1984. He was among the thousands in India to die of Covid-19 in the last few weeks.

Manzoor Ahtesham in an undated photo. A major voice in Hindi literature, he chronicled his native Bhopal in “The Tale of the Missing Man” and other works.
Credit...Northwestern University Press

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

To much of the outside world, the city of Bhopal, India, lingers as an emblem of industrial disaster, the place where a 1984 toxic gas leak from a Union Carbide plant killed thousands of people instantly and up to 15,000 over time.

Manzoor Ahtesham, a Bhopal native who was one of the most significant contemporary voices in Hindi literature, showed his readers a far more complex place.

To be sure, that disaster often hovers, metaphorically and otherwise, in his works. In one of his most acclaimed books, “The Tale of the Missing Man” (1995), his alienated antihero was with a prostitute behind his wife’s back on the night of the gas leak.

But in Mr. Ahtesham’s hands, Bhopal was a living presence, almost a character, whose changes and rich history he chronicled with forensic precision. “He was a walker and city dweller, so his books are thick with description of the ever-changing contours of the landscape,” Jason Grunebaum, who with Ulrike Stark translated “The Tale of the Missing Man” into English, said in a phone interview.

“He had this almost magnifying glass of an eye,” Mr. Grunebaum added. “If a cinema hall was razed or a new suburb was being built, he would describe these changes with a sensitivity, caring and love as if it were part of his own corporal organism.”

Mr. Ahtesham died in Bhopal on April 26. He was 73. Media reports said he died of the coronavirus, which has swept across the subcontinent with ferocity in recent weeks. His wife died of the virus in December, and his older brother died of it more recently.

Mr. Ahtesham’s survivors include two daughters and a younger brother.

During three decades of writing fiction, Mr. Ahtesham raised important questions about Indian Muslim identity, about deteriorating Hindu-Muslim relations and about the psychological aftershocks of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

In “The Tale of the Missing Man,” set in the years from the 1960s to the ’90s, the specter of partition looms as a historical backdrop for its antihero, who suffers from a postmodern condition — a murky mix of alienation, guilt and anxiety — that cannot be diagnosed.

A squib in New York magazine in 2007 hailed it as one of the world’s “best untranslated novels.” It lost that distinction in 2018 when it was published in an English translation by Mr. Grunebaum and Ms. Stark, who both teach in the department of South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago.

Mr. Ahtesham was especially taken with the translation, which received the Global Humanities Translation Prize.

“The English reincarnation of my novel is so moving,” he told interviewers for the journal Public Seminar in 2018. “It’s stolen my heart from the Hindi original.”

Manzoor Ahtesham was born in Bhopal on April 3, 1948, and raised in a middle-class Muslim family. He was educated at Aligarh Muslim University and what is now the Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology in Bhopal.

His parents wanted him to become an engineer. He tried for a few years, but his real passion was literature, and he soon abandoned engineering to write full time. When his brother opened a furniture showroom in the late 1970s, he hired Manzoor to help manage it, which gave him a way to support himself while he wrote.

He was fluent in Urdu, Hindi and English but wrote in Hindi, India’s most widely spoken language, to reach the most readers. He also loved the theater and movies; some of his works were dramatized. He landed a bit part in the 1994 Merchant Ivory film “In Custody,” about how Urdu, the language of northern India, was in danger of extinction as modernization obscured its contributions to Indian culture.