A new collection of translated short stories reminds us how Urdu literature needs to connect with a global audience, says Raza Rumi
As I hold the recently published “The Oxford Book of short stories” in my hands, I cannot help bemoan the fact that Urdu literature has been almost invisible from the arena of global literature. Admittedly, translation is difficult; the tediousness of translation daunts many a brave heart. Having said that, there have been a handful of remarkable translators such as Khalid Hassan, Alamgir Hashmi, CM Naim, Aamer Hussain, Umer Memon and Rakhshanda Jalil, to name a few. But a wide corpus of Urdu literature lies forlorn and hidden from global readership, which alas is dominated by English language readers. For this very reason, Amina Azfar has done a remarkable job of compiling a collection of Urdu short stories. Her earlier translations have been competent and quite often lyrical. For instance, Akhtar Hussain Raipuri’s Gard-e-Rahh (the dust of the road) and Sajjad Zaheer’s Roshnai ( the Light ) are noteworthy for their tone.
The book has a nice little foreword by Aamer Hussain, who is correct in stating that Azfar’s collection provides a fine introduction to the genre of the Urdu short story. The stories selected encompass a range of various experiments undertaken by the great Urdu writers. The stark realism of Munshi Premchand is counterpoised by Khaleda Hussain’s two short stories that are allegorical and somewhat postmodern in their sensibility. Iftikhar Arif, the renowned poet-bureaucrat, in his formal introduction quotes Dr Jamil Jalibi, terming the selected short stories “in the category of the very best”.Arif also rekindles the debate as to whether the Urdu short story is rooted in epics, mythology or an offshoot of the novel. This is an essential debate that has been overtaken by the decay of literary discourse in Pakistan. Things have come to such a pass that subjective biases against individuals and allegiance to literary cabals are the parametres for assessing works of fiction. It is well-known that the short story is a far more challenging genre than the novel, as a short story becomes a miniature universe in itself. This is where Urdu literature’s enrichment through myriad moods of story-telling has not been fully appreciated. Conversely, the novel form has not fermented well in the barrels of Urdu literature. It remains an alien genre to the ethos of Urdu.
The famous story Shatranj ke Khilari or Chess Players finds the appropriate position of being the first story of this volume. Also reinterpreted through a fabulous piece of cinema by Satyajit Ray, Chess Players illuminates the haunting decay of Oudh society during the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Set in the period immediately before the British annexation of the Oudh kingdom, it is a stark, mellow tale of two decadent yet brave men. But it does not reinforce the imperial stereotype:
“In those days, everyone, rich or poor, carried at least a small weapon such as a dagger or knife. The two men were decadent but not shameless. There was no trace of valour in them as far as national causes were concerned, but at the personal level they were full of courage. They had lost all feeling for state politics, and they felt, ‘why should we die, why should we interrupt our sweet slumber for the sake of the ruler, the state or the nation?’”
The ending is tragic, which makes Premchand conclude the story on the impermanence of human life, “which is even more short-lived than that of bricks and stones.”
The “name plate” by Ghulam Abbas is another well-known story that is a welcome translation for its universal appeal and the way it comments on the human condition. Hayyatullah Ansari’s two short stories are also brilliant readings and their translation is flawless. The vintage pieces are Open and Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hassan Manto, and Kaalu Bhangi , the sweeper, by Krishan Chandra. Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti also finds a place in this comprehensive collection. Ismat Chughtai, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and Ashfaq Ahmad, for understandable reasons, are also present in the collection. However, the selection of modern short stories is the real treat: this collage includes writers such as Zaheer Babar (“ Corpse Suspended in the Air ”), The Myna of Peacock Garden by Nayyar Masud, two outstanding stories by Khalida Hussain and Agni Da by Jameela Hashmi.
Khalida Hussain’s The Cart is a swamp of symbolism and meaning:
“On that evening in mid-December, I was near the bridge when I felt as though my head was pierced by a spear. Losing my balance, I supported myself against an electric pole and held my head with both hands. I realized then that what I had taken for a spear was an inexpressible wave of odour. The accompanying dread immobilized me so completely that it seemed that the source of the odour had arrived somewhere very close to me. Perhaps it was somewhere between my shoulder bones, near my neck, or right behind me – so close that it just stayed there.”
Jameela Hashmi, better known as a novelist, was also a remarkable short story writer. The last lines of her story Agni Da are poignant:
“The Agni Da whom we handed over to the soldiers on the other side weighed less than a bird. There was an extraordinary serenity around the closed eyes. Despite its toothlessness, the face appeared quite full, and pink, as though it was the face of dawn. Who knows who was captive in the spells of the unknown and the wind, and who was free; whether there is indeed a heaven or not . ”
The last story of this collection is by Fahmida Riaz, entitled “ Aurat aur Cheetah ” (The Woman and the Leopard ). This is a grand story narrated in the smallest of spaces. The narrative meanders between dreams, reality, visions and inner spaces, underlining the predicament of a woman that becomes a tale of womanhood itself.
My favourite, at the risk of being clichéd, remains Toba Tek Singh by Manto, whose sharp wit and sense of irony interlaces with the immense tragedy of Partition. The story is all too well-known, but the last lines essentialize the lunacy of India’s short-sighted and stubborn politicians, mired in the imperial game: “Behind the barbed wire, on one side was India, and behind a similar barbed wire on the other side, was Pakistan. In between, on a nameless piece of land lay the lifeless Toba Tek Singh .”
How many more Toba Tek Singhs will continue to die at the hands of jingoistic, insane nation-states armed with nuclear weapons and huge armies? This transition from a united India to the partitioned subcontinent is also a sub-text that runs through as the collection traverses the chronological path. From the realism of Munshi Premchand to the present day ghettos –internal and external, literature remains the best source of social histories.
First published in The Friday Times