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”. Continue reading
By Raza Rumi
Story telling has been a primordial urge, never quite expressed in its fullest measure, but always lingering and floating like life. There was a sub-continent before the colonial interaction that brought in its wake an aesthetic hardened by the industrial revolution and its uniformity of life and space. This was a world rich with myriad identities, of whispers and tales all interlaced in a peculiarly complex kaleidoscope. Since the 19th century that particular aspect of folk story telling and transfer of generational accounts gave way to what is now known as education and knowledge – instruments and reflections of power and a linear world view set elsewhere but adapted awkwardly to the local context.
This is why Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre in Lahore, under the leadership of Neelum Hussain, have undertaken the challenging task of reclaiming the rich heritage that lies in our folklore especially that of the Punjab. “The Romance of Raja Rasalu and Other Tales” is a stunning compilation of the romance of Punjab’s legendary hero, Raja Rasalu and, while it draws heavily on the
colonial storytellers, the book twists the narrative in a manner that brings us closer to the origins of our cultural sensibilities. The tales are sheer magic. The romance, the intrigue, the bravery and the integrated nature of human existence where it finds communication even with birds and trees comes to a full life throughout the narrative.
It is one thing to produce an admirable compendium but it is another matter to ensure that the purpose and spirit of the tales are adequately reflected in the illustrations. This particular touch of originality is provided by the eminent artist Laila Rehman whose breathtakingly attractive illustrations add a new layer of meaning and sensibility to the folk stories. It is, therefore, as has been rightly stated in the introduction, a book for pleasure: a pleasure that moves beyond the immediate and the momentary and merges into the real or imagined pleasure of living. Laila’s paintings and sketches are evocative enough to generate a parallel story within the larger narrative. It is as if the reader is traversing into several worlds. One minute Continue reading
by Awais Aftab
He took a puff of his cigarette, blew the smoke and observed with purposeless acuteness the amorphous wisps of smoke diffusing into the air, thinning out of existence. His lifted his gaze to a yellow taxi, a few cars ahead of his at the traffic signal, to make sure it was still there. ‘Yellow, yellow like guilt,’ he thought, taking another draw. His eyes fell on the rear-view mirror, and he saw a partial reflection of his own face: black, warm eyes; a handsome charming face in the early thirties. His wife, his former college fellow, had often told him how he used to be the crush of a dozen girls during the college days. He had felt a strange, meaningless pride in that revelation by his wife before, but at that moment, as he recollected this memory, he felt doubt. ‘Could this be a lie too?’ he thought. Doubt— a monster which was engulfing his whole life, his whole mind, robbing him of even a single moment of peace; doubt of his wife, doubt of her fidelity. He looked again at the taxi and saw a brief glimpse of her auburn hair. In the past when he nestled his nose against those silky strands, their pleasant fragrance used to fill to his whole body. But since a few days, after he had become a victim of doubt, that aroma had become a pungent odour, setting his soul on fire.
He had never thought of himself as a jealous, possessive husband. ‘I am an educated, cultured man’, he used to say to himself. But time knows better: that even thousands of years of social evolution is not enough to counter an atavistic impulse that runs in the very blood of one’s veins. He believed that he had always trusted his wife, but everyone can trust when times are cordial. It is only in the clash of suspicion and faith that the strength of trust is revealed; like yanking a sheet off a naked body. And it was only when those silent phone calls and wrong numbers started coming that he came to realize that he had never trusted her, never even for a moment. It was all an illusion. Continue reading
by Pervaiz Munir Alvi
Even though there was nothing remarkable about him, still every body knew Bakka Gujjer. Those were the days when many in our neighborhood kept a milk cow or a buffalo at their homes. Bakka was their sole trusted community cow-hand. At the crack of the dawn he would show up at our door and yell:
“Doctor Chaman, Bakka is here.”
When I was young I used to hate Bakka for many reasons. For one, I had this assigned job to get out of my bed, go downstairs and hand him the milk-pail filled with water so that he could wash and milk our cow. And then I must stay there to take the heavy pail of milk back upstairs to the kitchen. And the second reason: ‘Why the hell he always calls me doctor chaman’. “Bakka, I am not Doctor Chaman and don’t you call me by that name,” I would scream at him. “OK Doctor Chaman,” Bakka will answer with a grin. And the third reason of my irritation with him was that Bakka was hard of hearing. ‘Why must I always yell at the top of my lungs so that Bakka could hear me’. “I swear nothing is wrong with his hearing. He only pretends that to further irritate me,” I often complained to my mother. Continue reading
by Daniyal Mueenuddin – published in the New Yorker (August 27, 2007 )
He flourished on a signature ability: a technique for cheating the electric company by slowing down the revolutions of its meters, so cunningly performed that his customers could specify to the hundred-rupee note the desired monthly savings. In this Pakistani desert, behind Multan, where the tube wells pumped from the aquifer day and night, Nawab’s discovery eclipsed the philosopher’s stone. Some thought he used magnets, others said heavy oil or porcelain chips or a substance he found in beehives. Skeptics reported that he had a deal with the meter men. In any case, this trick guaranteed Nawab’s employment, both off and on the farm of his patron, K. K. Harouni.
The farm lay strung along a narrow and pitted farm-to-market road, built in the nineteen-seventies, when Harouni still had influence in the Islamabad bureaucracy. Buff or saline-white desert dragged out between fields of sugarcane and cotton, mango orchards and clover and wheat, soaked daily by the tube wells that Nawabdin Electrician tended. Beginning the rounds of Nurpur Harouni on his itinerant mornings, summoned to a broken pump, Nawab and his bicycle bumped along, decorative plastic flowers swaying on wires sprouting from the frame. His tools, notably a three-pound ball-peen hammer, clanked in a greasy leather bag suspended from the handlebars. The farmhands and the manager waited in the cool of the banyans, planted years earlier to shade each of the tube wells. “No tea, no tea,” Nawab insisted, waving away the steaming cup.
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