Sometimes very well-meaning people share quotes with dicey origins on the web Image Credit: Lexie Janney

As a teenager on a Sunday market stroll, I chanced upon a novel, Qatilon Ke Qatil (The Murderer of Murderers), by Ahmad Faraz.

Faraz, I knew, was a noted Urdu poet but this was for the first time that I was laying my hands on a novel by him, except that it wasn’t written by him. But I had no idea that it was a case of reverse plagiarism of sorts to lend credibility to the book. I was, anyway, too young to understand exactly what plagiarism or reverse plagiarism meant.

More by the writer

It was a couple of decades later that I came to know that this piece of piracy was a part of a series of novels attributed to Faraz under the title Ahmad Faraz Ki Jasoosi Dunia — Ahmad Faraz’s World of Spying — after I came across an interview that the poet had had with noted Pakistani broadcaster Naeem Bukhari.

I wasn’t at all appealed by the book’s sensational cover or the spurious paper on which it was written, but I bought it solely because the person it was attributed to was a modern great among Urdu poets and I was hooked to literature.

A few pages into the book and, even as a youngster, I knew I was going through some trash that Faraz could never write. I remember going back to the vendor the following Sunday and throwing it in his face. I got its replacement with an explanation: “I’m an illiterate man, sonny; how would I know all this!”

Smuggled books and DVDs

Back in the day, a lot of books were smuggled from Pakistan along with DVDs of stage dramas and music cassettes. Pakistani artistes like Nazia Hassan, Junaid Jamshed, Umer Shareef and Moin Akhtar had great fan following across the subcontinent and in the Indo-Pak diaspora as well.

Fast forward to 2021 and nothing has changed. In fact, the misattribution is far more rampant and viral owing to the emergence of various social media platforms. Faraz continues to have dozens of couplets that he never said attributed to him. So do his contemporary Faiz Ahmad Faiz and two of Urdu literature’s all-time greats, Ghalib and Iqbal.

Nothing irks me more when I get this alleged poetry that these greats never wrote. My usual response is a cuss word and it has been a bit of a deterrent.

Some of these so-called couplets are outright pathetic while some are barely passable. Some, however, are reasonably decent, though, not anywhere close to the works of the greats they’re attributed to.

The worst part of this pathetic trend isn’t the content or that it’s attributed to all-time greats by some anonymous folk but the fact that it’s shared and circulated by even reasonably educated people.

Strong religious overtones

Most of these couplets sound philosophical and have strong religious overtones as well and what I’ve felt in most of the cases is that people attribute them to these greats, thinking that the message would sell better. They obviously believe there is no harm in lying for a greater cause.

And then many well-meaning people share it. I’ve seen people arguing on social media after they’re called out for sharing such content, often asserting that the reader should consider the message which is more important.

But it doesn’t stop at these stalwarts of literature. There’s an even greater victim than these doyens of literature, one with a far wider audience and popularity across the world: Maulana Jalalludin Rumi, fondly known as Mevlana in the West. The 13th century dervish-poet has tonnes of quotes and other works compiled as best-selling books against his name.

Rumi’s original writings draw upon religious spirituality, contrary to what is attributed to him now in the form of its distorted and diluted versions so as to cater to the West’s sensibility. Rumi’s projected work is a far cry from his real work. But it sells.

The Rumi experts in the West can’t read or understand Persian and yet they translate him copiously to fit into their money minting projects. So next time you post a Rumi quote, bear in mind that there’s every likelihood it’s a fake one.

Shabir Hussain is a senior journalist based in India